In Defence of Dismaland: The Value of Banksy's Dystopian Nightmare
Why Banksy's dystopian vision of the future might be the kind of shock we need to realize the problems humanity faces.
Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst from the world of psychology and neuroscience. Formerly writing with the pseudonym "Neurobonkers", Simon has a history of debunking dodgy scientific research and tearing apart questionable science journalism in an irreverent style. Simon has written and blogged for publishers including: The Psychologist, Nature, Scientific American and The Guardian. His work has been praised in the New York Times and The Guardian and described in Pearson's Textbook of Psychology as "excoriating reviews of bad science/studies”.
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Banksy’s dystopian theme park hasn’t even been open a week, and already the critics have been out in force, pulling no punches, but missing the point in the process. Business Insider described it as “art about nothing.” According to the Evening Standard’s description, “it’s mostly selfie-friendly stuff” — which is only true if your idea of a good selfie is of yourself next to a graphic representation of human suffering. In fact, I barely found a single exhibit in the entire site that I felt realistically suitable to take a lighthearted selfie next to without immediately feeling like a despicable human being. Even The Guardian chimed in: "In reality the crazy fairgrounds and dance tents at rock festivals are far more subversive." The case against Dismaland was even made right here at Big Think where “outrage culture” received a slating.
None of this was in tune with the impression I walked away with, after exiting through the gift shop. A single overwhelming theme rang on in my mind on the ride home, and on into the night as I lay in bed, eyes shut, but wide awake, considering the imagery fused in my mind. Dismaland is a wasteland, a graphic and abrupt visual depiction of what we are already doing to our planet, and what might happen if we don’t collectively change our behaviour. You might think that there are better ways to go about this than shock and awe. I did once; after reviewing the research I’m no longer so sure.
Changing attitudes is a wicked problem that is not synonymous with correcting ignorance. Providing parents with information debunking vaccine myths can make them less likely to vaccinate their children. And 97 percent of scientists agree on the truth of global warming and this is “old news,” yet the size of the general population that refuses to believe in global warming is massive and pervades the political right.
A comfortable life and an insular social group with strong shared beliefs is a tough match for cold, hard evidence. Facts just aren't as seductive as a gas-guzzling 4x4, year-round air conditioning, and not having to worry about constraining your consumption and recycling your detritus.
The Guardian critique misses the point spectacularly, complaining about “a painting of a mother and child about to be overwhelmed by a tsunami.” According to The Guardian’s dismal analysis, "we are — apparently — meant to think it’s funny that the wave is about to kill these beachgoers." Their quote, not mine. No, of course you're not supposed to find it funny. You're supposed to finally recognise that if we don't respect this planet that we all share, our world will rapidly become unlivable for our children.
Despite warning after warning from scientists, we continue to ignore the threat of climate change and the damage we are otherwise doing to our planet. The UK, where the Dismaland exhibit is located, has been particularly regressive over the past year. Since the recent election, the British government has scrapped over half a dozen green policies. It is clear that evidence alone isn’t working to convince people; perhaps immersive evidence-inspired art will encourage minds to change, where evidence alone has failed.
Dismaland does not neglect facts; look hard enough, such as on a bus where the ominous destination is simply "Cruel" and you will find damning real-life quotes, graphs, diagrams, timelines, statistics, and artefacts, which you can consider as you wander on past the more metaphorical exhibits. You can even visit a library where you flick through the books that no doubt provided Banksy's inspiration.
The major criticism of the attraction has been that it breeds apathy and disengagement. On the contrary, I haven’t walked away from Dismaland feeling helpless and despondent. I’ve been left with a visceral rejection of apathy, the realisation that Dismaland isn’t a world I want to live in and that I need to do what I can to avoid this vision of the future. Look a little closer at the image below. In a stroke of what can only be described as artistic genius, Banksy has made every single employee of Dismaland a part of the art — no, the art itself. You don't want to be like one of these poor apathetic souls.
Even if the exhibition convinces just a few people to respect their planet and take a critical eye to the world around them, it will be worth its weight in gold. But perhaps Dismaland has the power to do more than that. Perhaps it will inspire people to alter their goals in life to actually change the world around them.
In a world where our top science graduates are regularly creamed off from our top universities to play the roulette wheel of high finance, the battle for hearts and minds to take ethical career paths lies with the next generation, who are certainly not left out at Dismaland. Kids can play crazy golf on a course of discarded oil drums and negotiate with pocket money loan sharks.
As for Business Insider's argument that the show is simply "bad," where else can you experience the illusion of zero gravity in a revolving caravan, before wandering beneath a giant oil tanker contorted high into the sky?
Often in life, it is experiences rather than words on a page or images on a screen that make us change our minds. I for one, hope this experience has an impact. Sometimes we humans need to reach rock bottom before we change our ways. Dismaland is rock bottom.
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.
Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco!
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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