Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots
... or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools
By David Brin, Ph.D.
It can be hard to notice things you take for granted — assumptions that are never questioned, because everyone shares them. One of these nearly ubiquitous themes is a tendency for most authors and/or film-makers to disdain the intelligence and wisdom of society as a whole, portraying a majority of their fellow citizens as sheep or fools.
Should this be surprising? The Euro-American fable has always featured an individualistic style. When the public pays for a fantasy experience, riding the shoulder of some bold hero or heroine, each customer wants to identify with a protagonist who is special, unique, or at least interesting in some way that departs from run-of-the-mill, batch-processed humanity. Even when the character seems unremarkable, he or she is marked as singular and fascinating by virtue of being the one whose thoughts and experiences we share.
That's the magic of "point of view."
While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The "we're in this together" spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren't portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.
This rule of contemporary storytelling is so nearly universal that it has escaped much comment — because you never notice propaganda that you already agree with. In other words, the reflex is self-reinforcing. A left-leaning director may portray villainous oligarchs or corporations while another film-maker rails against government cabals. But while screaming at each other over which direction Big Brother may be coming from, they never seem to notice their common heritage and instinct — Suspicion of Authority (SOA) — much in the way fish seldom comment on the existence of water.
Indeed, one of the great ironies is that we all suckled SOA from every film and comic book and novel that we loved... and yet, we tend to assume that we invented it. That only we and a few others share this deep-seated worry about authority. That our neighbors got their opinions from reflexive, sheeplike obedience to propaganda. But we attained ours through logical appraisal of the evidence.
No, you did not invent Suspicion of Authority. You were raised by it.
[image from Emanuele Leoni]
We Are the Exceptions
In fact, few other cultures subscribed to this myth-making approach. The old USSR pushed consolidationist themes; officially sanctioned Soviet science fiction depicted organizations as the central problem-solving entities, with individuals playing support roles. Even where past societies relished more individualistic story protagonists, they nearly always operated as part of a greater social context. In The Hero's Journey, Joseph Campbell described a traditional network of helpers, sages, clan elders and mystic guides to whom the typical champion would cyclically appeal for wisdom, assistance or declarations of definitive truth. While the hero might strive against powerful forces, he or she hardly ever questioned the authority of Olympian deities or Fates, or the overall context of rules binding them all.
Today's dominant storytelling technique, in contrast, nearly always portrays one or two individuals in dire scenarios, without useful support from the societies that made them. There is no help or authority that can be effectively appealed to, because those leaders are at best distracted or foolish. More often than not society itself is the chief malignity that must be combated.
Of course these storyline scenarios mesh well with the intimate, thought-following style of Point of View storytelling. Modern fictional heroes — often talented to a degree that seems larger than life — are shown dealing with some problem or conspiracy that no one else noticed, or confronting the dire consequences of some massive cultural error, or uncovering malfeasance on the part of society's corrupt leaders. When in doubt, it seems, a writer seems best served by assuming the worst.
In its crudest form, this phenomenon has been called the Idiot Plot.
[image from Think Map's Visual Thesaurus]
Lately, some intelligent writers like James Fallows have pilloried the news media, blaming them for declining public trust in our institutions. It certainly is true that we've seen a lamentable decline in journalistic standards. And yes, many modern reporters breathlessly exaggerate tales of official depravity. But not all news-folk are sell-outs, all the time. When they target mistakes by some corner of the bureaucracy, or a descend like flies toward the stench of corruption, one might argue that they are only doing their job as "social T cells" — part of our immune system against error. Moreover, during emergencies or disasters they do show public servants skillfully performing difficult tasks, helping re-knit the web of services that keeps us all alive.
(In fact, those emergency workers offer up a clue to what's going on. We'll get back to that, in a minute.)
What's significant here is that real life criticism of our institutions is the main thing that makes them better. Ironically, all the noise that makes us feel demoralized and mistrustful of them may be the surest sign of their overall health. No, the greatest blame for our declining morale should not be cast upon journalism.
It is we in fiction who show no respite or mercy, relentlessly depicting civilization as irredeemably stupid or morally bankrupt. If movies and novels were our basis for judging — say you were an alien relying only on the testimony of our adventure flicks beamed into space — then you would conclude that no human institution can be trusted. Cops won't answer when you call. Or they'll arrive late. Or if they come in time, they'll prove staggeringly inept. Or else, if they swoop in swiftly and seem competent, they will turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guy.
Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They'd call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well. In other words there is a stark disconnect between the world that film-makers live in, and the worlds that they portray. An absolute opposite of expectation.
And yet, directors like Cameron, Nolan, Spielberg and their peers clearly don't think they are lying, or doing harm, or insulting the public or civilization or the dedicated professionals they depend upon. I doubt the thought even crosses their minds.
Which is why this whole thing gets completely fascinating.
[image from Wikipedia]
Now don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of cautionary tales! Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, On the Beach, Silent Spring, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, Parable of the Sower... these all served up chilling warnings that helped to stave off the very scenarios they portrayed, by girding millions of viewers or readers to think hard about the depicted failure mode, and to devote at least some effort, throughout their lives, to helping ensure that it never comes to pass.
In fact the self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment — that Einstein called gedankenexperiment — is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity's most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I'm proud to be part of that tradition — an endeavor best performed by science fiction.
But this doesn't explain the dreary ubiquity of contempt that seems to fill the vast majority of contemporary novels and films, depicting the writer's fellow citizens as barely smarter than tree frogs, in a civilization unworthy of the name.
Ironically, most writers don't believe society is really that awful. They aren't trying to be accurate! No, they are creating a commercial product, one that has certain fundamental and ineludible requirements. The most basic of which is this: thou shalt keep thy hero or heroine in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 400 pages... or ninety minutes of film. That is the First Commandment. If you succeed in keeping the audience tense and riveted, then all else is secondary.
Ah, but think again about those skilled professionals. The cops and firefighters and FBI guys who are paid to keep us safe. If they show up on time, competent and effective, they will tell your protagonist: "Hey, that was real cool what you did in scene one, foiling that first villainous plot-thing. Only now step aside. We'll take over from here."
Exactly what you want to hear, in real life.
But an utter buzz-kill for drama!
Hence the Iron Rule: Society never works. Along with its corollary: Everyone is stupid. By making these twin assumptions, you can prevent your hero from getting any of the help that would dry-up all the drama. You can blithely and easily keep your protagonist in danger until that final satisfying explosion sets the credits rolling.
[image from vs. cyberpunk horrors]
Want the simplest example? We've all seen it in Grade B horror movies. A dozen spoiled, giggling teenagers enter a haunted house. The lights go out. Someone screams. Then we hear the famous line.
"Hey, gang. Let's split up!"
Why? Why do kids in these films deliberately choose to do the stupidest thing imaginable?
Because if they don't split up — if they behave like intelligent people who pool their resources and march out of there with linked arms — the author might actually have to exercise some imagination in order to keep up that precious jeopardy for 90 minutes. But if you start with an assumption of stupidity, the script almost writes itself, hurtling from one gruesome decapitation to the next.
Or take your typical thriller. At a predictable point the hero or heroine is cowering in a motel room, hiding from two dozen bad guys, armed with Uzis, who are watching for her at the train depot, bus station, and airport. They're using magically-instant credit card tracing to zero in on this very hotel! She's trapped!
Somehow it never occurs to our stalwart young protagonist simply to walk out of town. Lace up her sneakers and just hike a few miles, by sidewalk along unsurveiled residential streets, to some nearby suburb where the cops have a reputation for honesty. Or the town beyond that.
Why doesn't it occur to her? Because the novel would be over on page 80, and we can't have that now, can we?
Have you ever read a Michael Crichton novel, or seen one of his movies, in which the hubristic scientist actually paused and declared: "Hey, science shouldn't be done in shadows. If I keep this new thing secret I'll probably do something gruesomely stupid. But if I discuss this innovation with hundreds of peers, some of them will catch my mistakes and things won't get out of hand. Nobody will die."
It's the reasonable thing that any sensible tech wizard would say. But never in a movie. Or just picture someone uttering this line of dialogue:
"Hey, um, Jurassic Park dude. Here's an idea. Why don't you just make herbivores first! A billion people will pay to come. (And you'll only have to pay John Williams for the transcendent-joyful theme music, not the scary stuff.) Then, in ten years, after the security systems are all tested out... make one T Rex! Everyone will pay to come back."
Do you see how competence and openness are the buzz kills of drama?
Oh, but does that always have to be true?
As it turns out, it is possible to name a movie or two, in which the captain or supervisor or organization aren't a blithering idiots. The Fugitive, The Silence of the Lambs, and Apollo 13 all show institutions and public officials functioning well. Incidentally, they were all big hits. One of the core differences between Star Wars and Star Trek lies in how those two franchises treat the question of civilization. In the cosmos of George Lucas, not a single institution is shown functioning or doing its job. Once. At all. Ever. In contrast, Trek always loved to chew on questions like when and how the social compact might work, or fail, or need adjustment, or call for flexibility, or be handled differently by alien minds. Civilization — along with its laws and codes and contradictions — is often a major character in each show. A participant, subject to scrutiny, skepticism, but also sometimes praise. But of course, Star Trek always was an exception to every rule.
Literary science fiction and fantasy also wallow in the Idiot Plot, though with a few noteworthy exceptions. Certainly the recent tsunami of dystopia and apocalypse includes a few truly worthy "dire warnings"... while the rest are just rehashes of the same old, dark fears. Excuses to paint stark villains who can be loathed without bothersome politics. Indeed, Sauron's red, glowing eyes pretty much rule out any danger of plot-slowing stuff like negotiation.
Variations on this theme? Not only is every sci fi innovation kept secret, so that its flaws won't be uncovered and dealt with ahead of time, but the public seldom is invited to share in the New Thing. Or, if they do partake, they are portrayed using it as stupidly as possible, as in the flick Surrogates, where the brilliant invention of remote robotic surrogacy is only used to look good. Talk about a jaundiced view of your fellow citizens.
Did I allude to exceptions? In literature, you could look to the novels of Iain Banks, which depict our descendants having rollicking, dangerous adventures despite living in a near-utopia thanks to the hard work and genius of their ancestors. (You're welcome, kids.) Vernor Vinge, in Rainbows End, portrays near-future citizenship becoming tech-empowered art in a society that's getting better all the time... yet, drama is not killed.
One of my favorite recent exceptions is the series of four Spider-man flicks (Spider-Man: The Trilogy (Spider-Man / Spider-Man 2 / Spider-Man 3) and The Amazing Spider-Man). None of them are highbrow or classy. But despite their clichéd fluffiness, there appears to be a little-noticed tradition. In all of the first three films, Spiderman repeatedly saves New Yorkers from harm. But there is always a moment of brief role-reversal... when normal people, regular New Yorkers, step up and save Spiderman. Indeed, when I watched the recent fourth one — the reboot — I had to start by quashing sadness over Hollywood's craven inability to ever try anything new. Still, there came a moment, near the end, when — once again and with style — citizens stood up again for their hero. And I felt a thrill.
I felt proud.
How do such unpoisonous moments manage to sneak in, despite the driving needs of jeopardy pacing? In fact, all of the exceptions listed above stand out as excellent dramas because the writer decided to work for a living, using imagination to depict credible characters, people in peril, with problems to solve. Mistakes are made and these help drive the plot! Nevertheless, the writer or director did not feel compelled to slander all of civilization, just to get a little more jeopardy.
[image from Wikipedia]
The Sliding Scale
Shall we test my theory? If I'm right, and the dramatic needs of an action plot drive everything, then there should be a simple relationship between the magnitude of the danger and how competent civilization is allowed to be.
If the hero's nemesis is a regular, run of the mill criminal, you have to find some way to isolate the protagonist and prevent her from getting help from professionals. Local cops are corrupt. Or you're trapped on in a wilderness without phones. Or bringing in the authorities would deny you vengeance. Or the classic: you've been framed or convicted by mistake and the cops become part of the problem. Part of the jeopardy. These methods are standard, though the details can range from hoary clichés to rare plot twists that are cleverly innovative, even surprising and memorable.
Things get a bit easier as your bad guy grows more powerful, especially if you grant the SOB an unlimited supply of henchmen who are willing to die in service of Blofeld's evil plot to kill everybody on Earth. (Including, presumably, all of the henchmen's relatives; where does casting find these guys?)
All of this feeds into a sliding scale of villain power. Culminating with the aliens of Independence Day. Notice, in that case, that you no longer need incompetence or corruption of our institutions. Jeopardy takes care of itself. The invaders are so badass that even the United States government and military are allowed to simultaneously be both capable and good! In order to provide spear-carrier support for the two or three point-of-view heroes.
This sliding scale is adjustable. If the director actually wants to do something original — and the writer's brain is not already fried on cocaine — then there are always possibilities. A chance, here or there, to do what they manage to pull off in the Spiderman films.
A chance to say: "Mistakes were made and bad deeds done. These propel our story and our warning. On the other hand we aren't enslaved utterly to the Idiot Plot. Beyond the basic needs of our tale, we feel no need to slander a civilization that's been good to us, bringing to light all the wonders of science, providing us with health and safety and toys, while paying us to tell stories for a living!
"It's fine to criticize government and all the other centers of power, probing for their inevitable, arrogant error-modes. But we won't blanket-betray the nation that protected us, or the city whose cops we'd call, if we ever got into real trouble. We won't undermine the confidence of our fellow citizens by hammering away at their belief in themselves, or their democratic institutions.
"Our movie-or-book is driven by some mistakes and warnings, for sure. And we promise relentless adventure! Thrills, spills and narrow escapes, galore.
"But we will also compensate, palliate, and try not to spread a poison.
"In the background, just beyond our hero's manic view, you'll glimpse a civilization that's not hopeless, and citizenship succeeding just a little, now and then.
"If only because... well... we've got to live here, too."