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Our Favorite Clich: A World Filled With Idiots

... or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools
By David Brin, Ph.D.
http://www.davidbrin.com/idiotplot.html

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 JourneyThe 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
mediaBreaking the News, 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]


Self-Preventing Prophecies

Now don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of cautionary tales! Nineteen Eighty-
Four1984, Brave New WorldBrave New World, On the BeachOn the Beach, Silent
SpringSilent Spring, Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451, Soylent GreenSoylent Green,
Parable of the SowerParable 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 FugitiveThe Fugitive,
The Silence of the LambsThe Silence of the Lambs, and Apollo 13Apollo 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
BanksIain 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 EndRainbows 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)Spider-man: The
Trilogy and The Amazing Spider-ManThe Amazing Spider-Man). None of them are
highbrow or classy. But despite their clichd 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 clichs 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 DayIndependence 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."

THE END