Ever since I saw the first preview for the upcoming movie “Divergence” I’ve been struck with the idea that this is a society that created the various groups or castes as a response to a previous disaster. Looking at one of the posters, it is apparent that this city has undergone some serious damage, more than what would be expected from weather events (whose damage is usually more evenly spaced, where everything caught in the path of destruction suffers equally). It suggests a war of some sort, but one where the recovery, for whatever reason, resulted in running cabling between skyscrapers, or as my brother would say, why do they keep putting amateurs in charge of reconstruction after a major disaster? (To respond to the likely cries of ‘everyone’s an amateur after a major disaster’, that is true, but who in their right mind would think that it was simple to stretch cables between the upper stories of sky scrapers?)
So in response to trying to apparently (again I have not read the book nor have I seen the movie, but I don’t think that is material to my upcoming ideas) prevent such a calamity again, the society is broken into groups. Each group has particular talents, abilities, or synergies that make them cohesive where they might conflict with members of another group. You can also see this kind of setup in “Harry Potter” (which I think would have worked much better if Ron was from Gryffindor, Hermione was from Raven Claw, and Harry was from Slytherin … to reflect courage, knowledge, and power respectively, rather than good, ignored, and evil respectively; the less said about Hufflepuff the better). It is a kind of balkanization, in a positive sense, where individuals that would conflict with other individuals are instead put into a group where they don’t have to face conflict with their neighbours; interrelations between the groups is dealt with by a few, not on a populist level, so large conflicts don’t emerge.
The idea presented is that the main character is ‘divergent’, in that she doesn’t fit into one of the pre-arranged groups. The suggestion is that the groups are controlled by knowing their psychology, specifically what they fear; she doesn’t fear anything, and so can’t be controlled.
To me, the solution wouldn’t be to try to eliminate those who are ‘divergent’ but instead to recruit them as the overall leaders. It seems wasteful to want to eliminate such individuals, unless there is some kind of overarching need for equal parliamentary style leadership without any neutral groups (be they civil servants, powerless heads of state, or the like). ‘Divergence’ should be seen as a boon, not a curse.
That said, it got me thinking about the idea of the individual versus the collective. In stories like this or “The Hunger Games” the suggestion seems to me is that one should strive to be an individual above all else, putting the stability of society at least second if not further down one’s priority list. From an individual’s perspective, this makes sense; if people are going to try to kill me for being who I am, than I should fight against those people and those who support those people because it is an unjust system. And in these stories, it is a good thing that this individual is rebelling, because they are improving the lot of the collective, by moving them away from this unjust system.
But what of a story or situation in which the survival of the individual would make the system unjust? Or make it impossible to survive? Consider a society where there is only so much space, food, water, air, medicine, magic, or whatever, and that population levels have a maximum. Accidents will happen, and what do you do when you hit that cap? I feel, for the most part, writers and economists have responded mainly by suggesting that we will always find a way to fit in that extra person; technology will make things work or the market will find a solution.
This is a kind of Malthusian way of looking at things; there is only so much to go around, and if we spread it too thin, people will die, bringing the number back down into a survivable range. But is mass starvation, oxygen deprivation, disease, dehydration, etc. the best way to solve this problem? There is the idea of the willing sacrifice, where someone steps up to be the goat upon which the survival of the group is dependent upon their exodus. Then there is the trial, where only the best are allowed to stay. There is the random selection, like that which was used in “The Lottery”.
But for a moment, let us consider another possibility. We are presented with a society in which there are severe limits, say a space station that can only produce enough air for a certain number of people. That limit is reached and someone must go. If we were to take the logic of the previous individual, being killed for being different, if someone wasn’t willing to sacrifice, didn’t make the cut, or got randomly selected, would it be heroic of them to fight back? If they win, they would then have to decide who would have to die for the group to continue to survive. Are they any better then? Perhaps in victory they would suggest one of the other systems, where instead of skill, it was random, or vice versa, as arguments can be made for either (the group would be stronger versus it’s fair for everyone).
Consider another wrinkle on this kind of story. The character chosen for exile manages to find a place of greater safety and security, but it would require a harrowing journey such that only the stronger members of that group would survive. When they announce this place upon return to their enclave, what should their reaction be? If the stronger members leave for this haven, those who are left behind will surely die, but if they try to bring everyone along, many will die along the way, including some of the stronger ones. Should we look down upon someone who says that they could go, but if they did, someone would die because they were not there? Are they the pitiable collective who hold onto the bird in the hand rather than risk it for another in the bush?