When I first heard of The Hunger Games they sounded repulsive to me. Teenagers engaged in death-matches for public sport and food? Not what I go for.
Why did I think I disliked The Hunger Games? It is because I thought it would just be a glorification of violence at the expense of youth, in a muddle of ambiguous morality. I admit it, I’m a sucker for moral clarity (probably because I deal with muddles so often, clarity is nice once in a while).
But then I saw this video by Fr. Robert Barron (via Mark Shea) where he makes some stunning insights by applying Rene Girard (one of the last great French literary theorists, philosophers, and theologians still living – AND I had lunch with him once!) to The Hunger Games.
It all comes back to the scapegoating and sacrifice of the one or few for the sake of the many. Of all the odd and disturbing human universals, scapegoating and sacrifice is one of the most horrible. The Aztecs did it. Mayans, Incas, ancient Near-Eastern religions did it. The ancient Greeks (the story of Theseus and the Minotaur) and Romans (with gladiators and minorities), the Nazis, Communists, utilitarians* (oo, cheap shot!), new atheists, “the 99%”, and various religions, nations, political parties, and cultures, and on and on across literature, myth, geography and history – it is everywhere. It’s an equal-opportunity corrupter. The Hunger Games just continues the storyline. It intuitively makes sense because it comes from who we are.
Under the system of scapegoat and sacrifice, society must be relieved of its burden, whether sin, competition, boredom, or otherwise. This burden must then be placed upon those who can save us from it, through their sacrifice. The masses are made innocent through the guilt of the scapegoat, or, they are relieved of boredom by the excitement of the scapegoat. The fundamental message is that something is wrong and somebody has to pay for it. So we all solve the problem together and, miraculously, all our problems turn out to be someone else’s fault, not ours. Scapegoat is sacrificed. Order restored. Just perfect.
Christ’s sacrifice – theoretically (and I must say theoretically, because it did not in reality stop it, because psychological traps tend to entrap even those who ought to recognize them) – ended human scapegoating sacrifice once and for all, because God exposed the system for what it was: a profoundly immoral institutionalization of violence against the innocent.
Scapegoating sacrifice destroys human lives for the sake of group solidarity, and when Jesus reverses the story, exposing the victim as innocent, and the masses as guilty instead, it exposes to all of us our own complicity in evil, for which we need forgiveness, which, not coincidentally, Jesus also immediately provides. Jesus rips off the blinders of our own sin and then says “remember this, and remember also that I forgive you.”
And now back to Barron’s video. The point of his video is that if (or as) society de-Christianizes we should expect human sacrifice to return. At first face that might seem like a crazy alarmist claim, totally out of step with reality. (Not to mention that scapegoating sacrifice has never really stopped; it just became recognizable as bad.) But I think there is some legitimacy to Barron’s claims because it is already happening. Our society has already returned to public, scapegoating, human sacrifice. Its name is reality TV.
Watch this, a TV talent show with a very good teen singer:
We all know how these shows go. A bunch of different acts get up there and most flop and are berated for our amusement by Simon Cowell (let’s call him “Caesar” for now) who, for example, belittles these poor teens when they first come on stage. The other Caesars, I mean judges, might be a bit nicer, but still get their thumbs up or down votes. The crowds of course express their adulation or contempt with their voices.
In the case of the above video, the whole arena is wowed by unexpected talent, a beautiful thing. But let us not forget that Caesar is searching for gems among the rough, that he might find a lucrative music contract to profit by. The rough are berated, scapegoated for their temerity and unprofitability, and then ushered off-stage, to be forever remembered as those-who-failed both Caesar and the masses.
The message is that these individuals exist for our pleasure, and their social status and feelings, exalted or denigrated, exist as our playthings. And when we are done with them they are thrown away, as good objects of amusement always are – at least that is what we are told by our consumptive culture. All sacrificed for our public entertainment. They are sacrificed for us, that we might be amused. It’s really only, perhaps, a matter of time before thumbs up or down drops people into a pit with lions. Or is it?
We might consider The Hunger Games to be a tiny inoculation against such a move. As Barron points out, the stories are set in the future, and in America (!) of all places. The future is not all shiny and perfect; it is, rather, shiny and deeply immoral. High technology and high morality do not progress together, they do not coincide. 20th century Germany, a pillar of European culture and intellect, proved this before not once, but twice. All the European empires did (and perhaps every empire must, by definition). Many other cultures as well. Being shiny might boost our pride, but never our moral perfection. And so, perhaps, morality and technology are actually negatively correlated. (Here’s another post on morality and technology. And I think I’ll have to write something connecting technology to scapegoating and salvation as well…)
In the dystopian future America of The Hunger Games, they have fed their virtuous ideals to the lions, and so naturally humans follow suit. And in our real world, the first reality TV show began this course. No longer would we just pretend to scapegoat and sacrifice with actors, instead we would take real people and actually, really, scapegoat and sacrifice them, albeit socially and emotionally sacrificed and not physically. Reality is so much more emotionally investing that fiction. And if that means a few will need to be used as social sacrificial pawns, then so be it. They will volunteer, and we will accept them. No need for a lottery (that just heightens the immorality of it, no need to go there when we still have countless willing victims). We aren’t to physical death yet, and if we are vigilant we hopefully never will be. But do be prepared to be unsurprised.
So what is the moral of the story? Harming others for the sake of entertainment is sick. It exhibits profound character flaws, or at least deep moral confusion. Not all reality TV needs to involve hurting people for the sake of entertainment, I am not blanket condemning the entire genre, but for some reason a lot of it does. The reason is that they make better sacrificial scapegoats that way; the talentless guilty must pay after all.
That such talent shows as the above exist for millions to enjoy while individuals are led to their ritual live-on-television social slaughter is a testament to our loss of empathy and respect for our fellow humans. What are the barbaric tournaments in The Hunger Games after all, but another talent show, where the talent is for murder and not song?
So, I think I will go see The Hunger Games, and I will filter it through Rene Girard and contemporary reality TV, among other things. I’ll see what I think. And when I step out of the theater, I will wonder if our world makes more, and not less, sense. That’s a lot to ask of a movie, but then, I think we ought to ask it of everything.
UPDATE: (25 May 2012) I am no doubt one of the last people in America to have seen The Hunger Games in a theater – I finally saw it yesterday. It was much better than I expected, an excellent movie, well worth seeing (the sound was especially well done). The violence was not glorified, and the injustice of the system is very strongly displayed. Panem’s capital is not just just a technological Utopia, it is a decadent monstrosity built upon the bones of its tributary districts. Lastly, the movie was so intensely Girardian that I am very suspicious that Suzanne Collins has read Girard. There are web rumors she is Roman Catholic (which might explain the Girard link) but nothing solid. In sum, I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the movie was made given its dystopian premise, I am looking forward to the next two movies.
* My shot at utilitarians is because of the classic “what if we could make everybody happy by just making one person miserable or dead?” question. Scapegoats. We will achieve our utopian end; just eliminate all who hold us back. As current debates on abortion and infanticide and (even!) voluntary human extinction show.