Award-winning and world-renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood spoke at Hendricks Chapel last Thursday evening, as part of the University Lectures program that brings acclaimed guest speakers to Syracuse University. The most famous of Atwood’s literary body of work are her novels such as “Cat’s Eye,” “Alias Grace,” and most notably, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has recently been made into a popular television series.
Predominately a dystopian and science fiction writer, Atwood spoke in Hendricks Chapel about how different forms of government shape society, including socialism, communism and totalitarianism. At the heart of the concept of governance, Atwood said, is human nature and its relationship with power. Atwood went on to discuss how sometimes, this dynamic can leave little room for humanity. Some readers view Atwood as a pessimist; her stories often take on dark themes regarding the what-ifs about the future of humankind. But as Atwood said, the content of her literature is not completely dark because she always leaves room for hope.
Rather, Atwood is a realist; she is an analytical thinker about societal patterns and trends that she has observed in the past and in the present. Atwood writes about these concepts as an uncomfortable reminder of what could happen in the future if we are not careful.
Atwood said that when power presents itself to someone, the vast majority of the time, he or she would take it. She explored a common theme among her novels: the ruling of a society and the many ways in which that ruling can play out.
And with rule, comes power. Atwood’s work reflects the sociological and psychological components involved in government rule. When a government becomes corrupt with its own power, it can lead to different and dangerous outcomes.
Atwood explained how societies with a power-hungry ruling system are much more susceptible to oppression.
“Power is power,” Atwood said. “If you give some people more than others, they’ll take it.”
Atwood explained how it is easier for an individual to abuse another when that individual sees the other as less than human. It is much more difficult to abuse someone when they are viewed as an equal, Atwood told the audience. The dehumanization of a group of people allows for a greater accepted abuse of that people, which is the beginning of oppression.
Oppression can manifest itself in many different ways, ranging from subtle to extreme. Insult, abuse, discrimination, surveillance state, genocide, and slavery are all forms of oppression to different degrees. Atwood has covered each of them in her novels.
Another tactic commonly found in an oppressive society, Atwood said, is creating oppressors among the oppressed. When the ruling group makes several people within the sub-human group have slightly more power than the rest, these people become oppressors themselves. This technique has been used throughout history, Atwood explained, because when there is oppression among the oppressed group, the entire group is easier to control.
An example of this oppressive tactic that Atwood used in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the difference in status between the wives and the handmaids. Although in the setting of the novel all women are oppressed and lack many of the rights that men have, specific women, the “wives,” have more rights than—and not to mention control over—the “handmaids.” Creating a hierarchy among women makes it easier for the men in the story to control them further.
Atwood added that clothing plays a major part in establishing the roles within a society, and can be used to aid oppression. Society uses clothing as a way of immediate identification: custodians wear janitorial uniforms, doctors wear white coats, and surgeons, as Atwood included in her example, wear scrubs and masks. Uniform is how we can tell who someone is and what they do. In oppressive societies, uniforms identify a group of people and separate them as less than, or not equal to others. Uniforms can increase and sustain that prejudice.
We have seen clothing used as a way to foster oppression throughout history, like Jewish citizens wearing gold stars during World War II, and women forced to wear burkas in certain Middle Eastern countries.
Atwood used clothing in “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a key tool of oppression. In the story, every woman has to wear a certain color and costume based on rank. The Handmaids wear red, the Marthas wear green, and the wives, the highest status a woman can be, wear blue. This way, people can tell who others are and what role they play in society, and treat them accordingly.
Atwood confirmed for the audience that she did not make up any element of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood took every part of its dystopian society from some point in history. This makes the novel even more terrifying and captivating; every aspect of the book—whether it be the ritual of raping women, the taking of children from their mothers, or the hanging of journalists, doctors, free-thinkers, protestors, and LGBTQ people—has occurred at some point in history. Atwood creates a collage of a nightmarish government that could potentially exist.
The brilliance of the “Handmaid’s Tale” and of Atwood’s other novels is their realness; the reader comes to the horrifying realization that these extreme situations are actually plausible. A story that may make the reader put down the book for a moment and say to him or herself, “Holy shit, this could actually happen in my country, to my family, to me, in my lifetime.” This is Atwood’s ingenious gift as a writer, and it sets her apart from (and above) so many others.
The most dangerous thing a person can think or say, according to Atwood, is, “It could never happen here.” Because being ignorant to the possibility of an idea actually happening—an idea that seems so wildly absurd and inhuman—is the first step in letting one’s guard down. It makes one blind to the beginning signs of change in society. Ruling out the possibility of something happening, Atwood said, makes us more vulnerable to its happening.
An audience member asked Atwood if she thinks we are at a tipping point for becoming a totalitarian state. Atwood said that it’s not likely, though never impossible. Atwood told the audience she couldn’t see the U.S. rolling over easily when faced with totalitarianism, because the country is too diverse and too spread out to easily accept, transition to, or obey totalitarian rule.
Atwood also pointed out that it is much more difficult for a country that founded in democracy to shift to another form of government.
So, at least there’s some relief there. Still, as Atwood and many of her novels have warned us, we can never be too sure, and we should never get too comfortable in the belief that our nation is immune to things that we’ve seen happen in other countries.
And especially in the Trump era, we need to stay on our toes.