In a futuristic dystopia, Gale Hawthorne and Katniss Everdeen discuss the upcoming Hunger Games, a fight to the death put on for the pleasure of the ruling class and to discourage rebellion. Gale asks, “What if one year everyone just stopped watching? Then they wouldn’t have the games.” This scene from the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games illustrates the power of science fiction to create a world in which we can explore the implications of ideas in reality. If you are unfamiliar with The Hunger Games, Campus Coordinator Christine-Marie Dixon reviewed the book here.
Gale’s observation is not just saying that if citizens refuse to watch the Hunger Games, it will cease to exist. Much more than that, it is an expression that tyrannical regimes exist largely because the victims accept the inevitability of the system and agree to play the game. By watching the show and playing the game, the people are sanctioning their rulers and perpetuating the system.
When considering that much of the power granted to governments is held together on this thin thread of compliance, one must ask, how often do we watch and play in our own Hunger Games? As a work of science fiction, the world of The Hunger Games is far more dystopian than our own. We do not have teenagers fighting to the death for entertainment and a government with full control over our food supply. But, then again, the world of The Hunger Games is not farfetched. Civilizations like the Roman Empire have existed with gladiators dying for the pleasure of the rulers, and the Soviet Union starved millions of Ukrainians less than a century ago. However, though our government does not compare to the brutality on the Capitol, we nevertheless allow the state to perpetuate crimes against society that could be prevented if we just stopped playing the game.
The government can use force and threats of violence to control our behaviors. When force is involved, it is difficult to resist for obvious reasons. There are other times, however, when we play the government’s game without even a clear threat of violence for non-compliance. An example of this is gay marriage. Marriage is a largely religious institution, but it could be argued that it is also a social institution. The government’s role in marriage is imposed by the government by a state-issued marriage license, but it has also been ingrained in society simply by convincing people that they need the government to sanction their loving relationship. Whenever a state has passed legislation allowing for gay marriage, the news shows many gay people throwing weddings in that state. Why did they wait until the government approved? Sure they couldn’t get a government marriage license, but there was nothing stopping two men from having a marriage ceremony, inviting all of their friends and family to celebrate their relationship, and referring to themselves as married. And yet millions of people are waiting for the government’s permission to wed. Why?
It could be argued that because the government issues the marriage certificate and certain privileges that accompany it, they maintain power over marriage. This is a valid concern; however, gays under the ban could still still get married and fight for equal treatment in contracts. So, this is again an example of how we should refuse to play by the state’s rules. Hospitals, banks, employers, etc. could create their own agreements that allow gay couples the same privileges as other couples. As soon as the government marriage contract is seen as the worthless piece of paper it is, their power over marriage dissolves.
This is not a call for revolution. It is a call for rejection and nullification of the government’s games. The government has convinced us that we have a duty to obey, a duty to conform, and a duty to participate in their rules. We allow them to rule us through fear, by threatening us with violence and imprisonment if we don’t obey. Even more powerful than fear, as Capitol President Coriolanus Snow understood, is hope. In the film he asks Seneca Crane, the Head Game Maker, “Why do we have a winner? Hope… It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.” The Capitol can only contain the people so much on fear. Without giving them a shred of meaningless hope that they can change the system, fear would not be enough.
Our system keeps us in check with a little, effective hope as well. We are told that if we play the game, we can change the system. Gay couples do not ignore the government and marry because they are told that they can change things by playing the game. They believe someday their hope and patience will pay off and they will be granted permission by the government. The table scraps of hope that are thrown to people by the government keep them complacent in ways that fear cannot. People will rebel against fear, but allowing them a glimmer of hope that they can change the system is how the game keeps them at bay and maintains the illusion of control.
If we stop watching, if we stop playing the game, we can dry up the power of the State. Looking for solutions outside of the State and not waiting for permission to be free will allow us to be free. At the risk of mixing fantasy and science fiction movie references, I will close with a quote from a poem recited by Sarah in Labyrinth: “For my will is as strong as yours, my kingdom as great… You have no power over me.” Sarah, like many of us, had trouble remembering the last line. Only by remembering who has the power will we ever be free.