[By Ben Noble]
The Purge, released in June 2013, is a standard suspense movie. It falls into the home invasion genre of horror movies. The movie as a whole is good enough. Its worth renting. This interesting part is the underlying statement that the movie makes about society and it’s much more frightening than the movie is. The statement is this: Individuals, groups, and even society as a whole are prone to accept evil as morality if commanded by an authority or government. This is frightening because this is true in many ways. Before I talk about the ways in which this is true, lets talk a little bit about the plot and what happens in the movie.
The film takes place in the near future, 10 to 20 years in the future if I remember correctly. The US has reduced poverty to under 1% and crime is all but nonexistent. So how did they do it? They created a yearly event called “The Purge” where all laws are suspended. All laws. Theft, assault, destruction of property, and even murder are legal for 12 hours. Even emergency services are suspended. Also, the government actively encourages and applies social pressure for people to participate in the bloodbath every year.
In the movie the current economic troubles in the US continue for years and things get worse. Things get so bad that eventually a group of politicians, dubbed the “New Founding Fathers”, come up with the idea of “The Purge” and eventually get it enacted into law. The idea is that people build up a need to commit violence throughout the year and they need to be able to purge themselves of that desire. Then people can get back to their lives and be more productive. The nation recovers and even enters a new golden age. This is just a side note and I don’t think it affects the overall social statement in the film, but this is obviously the most absurd part of the film. You can’t create better people by encouraging them to become murderous sociopaths and you can’t create wealth by destroying property, even if its just once a year.
So how did the “New Founding Fathers” get the nation to agree to and participate in such a barbaric kill-fest? It’s simple, propaganda. They leveraged the economic and social crisis of the time. They use social pressure and attacks on the patriotism of anyone that questions them. The name “New Founding Fathers” is clearly designed to silence critics. They also used the media and the education system to shape young people’s minds. In the end they were able to convince the whole nation that black is white and that violence makes peace and prosperity.
The family members in this film experience different parts of the propaganda machine. James Sandin, played by Ethan Hawke, and Mary, his wife, are pressured on several fronts into accepting and supporting The Purge. The news media fills the airwaves with support. They also feel social pressure from the people around them. In the beginning of the movie James brings home a bouquet of blue flowers, not for his wife, but to display in a window in a show of endorsement of the yearly bloodbath. One can assume that not doing so would draw negative attention to himself and his family. Both of them encounter people in their neighborhood and engage in small talk about the “Purge Parties” being held in the area. You can tell that James and Mary don’t really like The Purge, but they have to go along with it in order to avoid negative reactions from others. Propaganda can create a situation where those that swallow it whole will then pressure others to conform. That is a truly devious and powerful force. There is also one other thing that spurs James to play the game. He works for a company that sells security systems specifically designed for protecting homes during The Purge and he’s making a lot of money doing so. Unfortunately, financial incentives can affect the morality people are willing to live by. Many government policies, including the bad ones, often create an industry that depends on that policy and they become financially incentivized to support it no matter how bad it is.
While the adults live in an environment filled with propaganda and social pressure, the children are locked into indoctrination centers masquerading as schools. We learn through James and Mary’s kids that they are made to read history books and write papers that reflect positively on the yearly slaughter. There is a conversation or two where the son openly questions whether or not The Purge is a good thing and the sad part is that James attempts to reinforce the propaganda that his son was learning in school. His line of questioning hits its peak when the son asks his parents why they don’t participate in the violence and killing. The best answer James can come up with is that they don’t feel the need to purge like other people do. This all but exposes the hypocrisy that James chooses to live with.
I implied this earlier, but now I’ll talk about living in a heavily propagandized society a little more. You cannot trust your fellow citizens completely. You can be targeted for violence by your peers for a variety of different reasons whether its for not buying the narrative or if you fail to follow expected behaviors. Without giving too much away from the plot, James and his family would be wise not to trust anyone around them, even their neighbors. They end up being a very real threat.
The movie admittedly takes this concept to the very extreme. Even so, the statement embedded in the movie is very true, but in the real world it’s more subtle.
The “war on terrorism” is the first instance that comes to mind. In “pursuit” of peace and stability in the Middle East 100s of thousands of people have died and the area is just as unstable as before. A huge portion of the deaths have been non-combatants, women, and children. In the name of protecting our freedoms we have let our government ignore our rights and civil liberties. All without much of a reaction from the public at large. There is even a portion of the population that accepts the trampling of their rights proclaiming “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” Even the left wing anti-war movement has been silenced just be switching to a different administration. The war on drugs. Instead of decreasing drug use, has made the US the prison capital of the world. The resulting risk now inherent in moving illegal substances has created a huge underground network filled with violence and death. Apparently its worth it though. Putting people in prison because they have the wrong kind of leaf in their pocket has become completely reasonable. Taxes are patriotic. The US broke from and fought a war with England over taxes a fraction of what are imposed on us now. Failing to pay these taxes will land you in jail. Anyone of us would be outraged if someone walked up to us and took the money out of our wallet, but no one bats an eye when a group of people in Washington vote to take money out of your paycheck even before it reaches your hands.
The overturning of morality in the real world is not as overt and morbid as the movie, but the destruction and death is very real. The tools that are used are the same. The government dominates the educational system and immerses the young in thinking that supports the system. The media actively supports those policies and attacks those that disagree. The public at large attacks and questions the patriotism of those that do not proclaim the excepted propaganda. The scary part is imagining how much farther we can be taken down the rabbit hole. In the past other countries have gone down a very dark path. There are many examples of countries that have followed government calls to replace right with wrong and life with death.
Individuals, groups, and even society as a whole are prone to accept evil as morality if commanded by an authority or government. This is not some abstract idea that frolics in meadows with unicorns and crapping out ice-cream. We live in a world where this is a reality, it’s just hard to see. The best thing we can do is to embrace individualism, reject forced collectivism and live free.
The Purge trailer: