Conformity Within 20th and 21st Centuries Utopias/Dystopias Idealized by Cold War Era
The Cold War changed the way that many people in the United States and the world in general viewed the vast differences between freedom and control. One of the key factors in the Soviet Union that so frightened outsiders, was the level of conformity that they commanded over their people. In the People’s Republic of China, everything from communication to travel was controlled and people did their jobs in both communities or were left behind in history. Every person was required to fall into place in this cookie cutter like model under the communism of this time period. This loss of freedom was a topic many theorists and scholars at the time feared would possibly control the future and outlast the ideas of freedom. Therefore, many books and futuristic fiction works in the Cold War Era and period following, envisioned a society in which conformity and control had taken most freedom much like the Communist regimes in Russia and China. Fear of conformity was working its way into many free minds due to the Cold War, and it influenced the way 20th and 21st century utopias and dystopias were thought about as readers can see the antagonists in most of these novels attempt to break conformity in some way, sometimes successful and sometimes not. By understanding this fear in novels and other media, readers can get a glimpse into the emotions and ideas surrounding conformity and a controlled society during the Cold War.
The first example of this comes from the beginning of the Cold War and was written in 1949 when the Cold War was really just beginning. Written by George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a dystopian novel about a society eerily similar to the Soviet Union which at the time had just taken steps into becoming a global communist superpower. From the outside, people began to believe communism was about conformity and control of the government over the population and these thoughts are echoed by George Orwell. One such example comes in the form when the main character, Winston, thinks to himself:
“The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed—would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you. (24)
Propaganda in the Cold War demonstrated this same control of thoughts and ideas within the communist regimes as secret services, such as the KGB, controlled anti-government thoughts and ideas through quick punishment and a constant surveillance that lead to people behaving as if they were always watched. This society leads to a similar thinking within all the citizens of the society, and this is a paranoia or fear that breaking what’s expected from you will result in your elimination in this society so everyone will conform and keep others in line to keep the peace. Another method these Cold War, communist countries demonstrated was control over media and how they manipulated facts in order to get what they wanted. To the free world and people in it, this seems like a huge violation of several basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of press. This fear is demonstrated when Winston ponders the history of his country, Eurasia and he remembers the Party’s motto, “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’(Orwell, 44). This control of facts was a huge fear at the time for free people and posed a question. How would people remember their history or make history if the government could change anything with its power? This quote reflects the thoughts that had begun to creep into the minds of people in the beginning of the cold war and was being fed by this futuristic dystopia at the time. In the story, Winston attempts to be heroic and fight the control of the leader who echoed visions of Stalin, Big Brother, by resisting total conformity and we see this struggle when he writes repeatedly on his contraband paper, “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER,” (Orwell, 23). Though small, this is a victory for free thinking people as Winston is still managing to resist conformity in this fear driven society. He would later be captured by the Thought Police and reconditioned to accept his place in society showing a failure to break the mold and escape the control of the government. Nineteen Eighty-Four offers insight into the minds of the outside world and the first true glimpse into a theoretical future for the world that many people thought would result if communism and its controlling parties weren’t destroyed.
Now another dystopian society, which appears utopian at first, shows readers how the mindset hadn’t changed much, as the Cold War grew tense towards the official end, in, The Giver, written by Lois Lowry and published two years after the end of the Cold War. Many consider living in a comThe Giver
munity or country a freedom and that especially in America, not everyone has to contribute to society, and yet they will still be able to live within it. This was not the case in the community in The Giver, and we see shame and the society casting out non-conforming people or people who failed at their jobs much like in these Cold War communist communities. Lois Lowry writes, “For a contributing citizen to be released from the community was a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure,” (Lowry, 2). This reflects the loss of freedom to do one’s own desires and that failure to understand and fulfill one’s role in society leads to the expulsion of that person from the society or release of that person in the case of this dystopia. Later the main character Jonas, wonders how this could even happen when the society designates specific jobs for people and is meant to give the perfect job for each person. He wonders, “How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made,” (Lowry, 48). Although only shortly after the end of the Cold War many people felt the ripples of the fear which had poisoned society due to these conforming thoughts and even here in this dystopia, readers can view the level of conformity demanded by this community as it is also seen that adolescents in this society are prepared for adult life and their specific roles. Jonas describes this process when talking about age in his community which isn’t celebrated or kept track of. He thinks, “After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though information is in the Hall of Open Records… What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in you Assignment,” (Lowry, 17). Everyone fall into place and is told that their job is the only thing that matters in their life for the betterment of the community. Slowly though, like most utopian and dystopian novels or works after and during the Cold War readers can see a change within Jonas like most antagonist that leads to his breaking conformity. In this society, he has inherited the ability to see color and inherit memories as his future position is being the Giver, and his abilities are something no one else can have. Jonas is frustrated that he cannot change society and break people out of the cycles they are stuck in. Lowry writes, “He found that he was often angry… that they were satisfied with their lives which had none of the vibrance his own was taking on. And he was angry at himself, that he could not change that for them,” (Lowry, 99). This demonstrates that these feelings of unrest over conformity were still strong in free societies such as America and that the fall of the Soviet Union, a huge communist conforming power, would not bring about the peace of mind over this issue that many had hoped for as future societies were still at risk in the minds of many. Jonas does successfully leave this extremely controlling society and escapes with his freedom. However, this novel gives the reader a glimpse into the worries of people who had lived with this opposition to conformity and the uncertainty of the future even with the strength of communism waning. The fear of these issues had resonated with society and there was no chance of it escaping as conformity became the enemy.
The fear in people was greatest in the middle of the Cold War, when people saw no near end in sight and truly believed that the world would take a turn for the worse. This is demonstrated in the dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury. People in this society are instructed to burn books as they contain knowledge that would be dangerous for the general population to hold. Seen first by societies such as Nazi Germany, the other big communist powers simultaneously started to begin this practice as knowledge is power to most people. Without books and the freedom of access to this past knowledge, people are easily controlled and manipulated. However, books hold another power over conformity, and is best stated by one of the main antagonists, Montag, when he says, “And I thought about books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books,” (Bradbury, 49). Books and knowledge are distinctly a person’s own words coming through in art, and the willingness of a government to destroy an individual’s work reflects the level of control that the government has over the people. The people with power would rather oppress the people and force them to conform than give them what most would consider a basic freedom to access knowledge and let someone’s mind live on through their work. This also could be considered altering or destroying media which was a concern also seen in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Addressing this concern, one of the firemen, Captain Beatty, who burns the books states, “We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought,” (Bradbury, 59). This demonstrates that the government in this society like the ones at the time, believed or said that they were destroying the books in order to keep the people safe from dangerous ideas, but this was a charade to take away from the fact that knowledge is both freedom and power and that the books hold the legacy and memory of some people. This was a great concern for the outside world because if a freedom this basic can be stripped away and the world is beginning to turn into this future around a person, what’s to stop them from thinking that the future could hold some dark future such as the dystopia described in Fahrenheit 451. People saw the world around them changing and going through these drastic conditions and began to worry about their own place in future society especially while the Cold War was becoming more and more tense.
Conformity within society is defined as fitting within the role designated to each individual person, and readers can see a clear fear of it from the way people created utopias and dystopias in the Cold War Era as conformity was considered losing one’s freedom almost entirely. Throughout these novels we see an urge to resist, but due to the successfulness and unsuccessfulness, there is clearly a fear of the unknown future as well as no one knew what was going to happen and whether society was going to change for the better, or for the worse.