“I think there’s a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of the line,” (Lucy Gray, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, pp. 493).
” ‘If even the most innocent among us turn to killers in the Hunger Games, what does that say? That our essential nature is violent,’ Snow explained.
‘Self-destructive,’ Dean Highbottom murmured,” (pp. 515)
In her newest book, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins tells the story of President Snow as a young man. As we watch eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow participating in the production of the Hunger Games for the first time, we also see how the Hunger Games came to be celebrated in the Capitol. This complex, action-packed story explores the struggle of drawing the line between right and wrong. Collins shows us how a society can fall into the acceptance of evil, and how an individual can justify their way to a clear conscience, even with blood on their hands.
The Capitol and The Hunger Games:
When you look at the cruelty of the Hunger Games in the original trilogy, one of the first questions you might ask is how did the Capitol become so evil that it celebrates something so gruesome? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins shows us how that acceptance began. Snow’s story takes place ten years after the first Hunger Games. Most people, even in the Capitol, won’t watch it. As Coriolanus’s high school class works with the Gamemakers, we see a shift in perspective in favor of the Hunger Games. We see three basic ways the Capitol slowly convinces their citizens that the Hunger Games are right.
1: Emphasizing Otherness
Although the war between the Capitol and Districts has ended, the feelings of division remain. The Capitol encourages at every opportunity an “us vs them” mentality. Because of this, citizens of the Capitol view the Districts as inferior rebels, deserving of their punishment. More than that, they view the Districts as a lesser race, as can been seen when a child reminds Sejanus not to feed the animals when he tries to give sandwiches to the tributes at the zoo (pp. 64). “They’re not like me,” she insists. “They’re district. That’s why they belong in a cage!”
The Hunger Games can exist because the Districts are full of subhuman enemies. An emphasis on otherness dulls the Capitol citizens’ sense of empathy and allows cruelty to creep in.
2: Silencing Disagreement
The Capitol leaders also keep their Hunger Games alive by silencing opposition. Any word against the Capitol is either brushed aside or swiftly crushed, depending on the severity of the disagreement. When Sejanus questions whether watching the Hunger Games is right, his professor ignores the question and moves on (pp. 80). Later, Sejanus goes to the arena in hopes of making a statement, and Dr. Gaul cuts the video feed so no one sees him (pp. 234-235). Rebels are killed for speaking out, tributes are made examples of for trying to escape. And even Coriolanus is punished for acts of rebellion. Few are willing to speak up against the Hunger Games, even though they believe them to be wrong, because they fear the consequences.
3: Building Complacency
Perhaps the biggest reason the Hunger Games came to be accepted was complacency. Too many people were willing to see the Games as a reality they couldn’t change. We can see this in Coriolanus’s classmates who discuss how the games are gruesome and sickening, yet still partake in mentoring the tributes fairly willingly. Several students, including Coriolanus, view participation as an honor. Little by little, the Hunger Games were being normalized as a fixed part of their society. As the Gamemakers try to encourage more people to watch it, they institute interviews, betting, and donating to the tributes. By getting citizens involved in the Games, they brought the Games closer to home, making them harder to see clearly. It’s easy to become numb to evil when you yourself are part of it.
Truth for Today:
Suzanne Collins’s portrayal of human nature and how humanity justifies wrong is incredibly applicable to today’s society. Although we don’t have vicious, Colosseum-like events, our society daily tries to redefine right and wrong to fit its worldviews. We’re in danger of accepting evil because we’re guilty of the same acts that led the Capitol to accept the Hunger Games.
In our media, we encourage division, so that every controversy becomes fixed with an “us vs them” mentality. BLM vs Blue Lives Matter. Pro-life vs Pro-choice. Republicans vs Democrats. We don’t simply disagree with each other; we polarize ourselves, creating false dichotomies with no common ground.
And on an individual level especially, we’ve become prone to silencing those who disagree with us. For example, I constantly see Facebook posts that declare, “If you agree with X, then unfriend me now.” I see posts that condemn people for speaking out against certain topics because they’re “pushing their religious beliefs on others.” Maybe that’s true at times. But often, we’re expected to stay silent on issues that are absolutely, morally wrong, beyond just our religious beliefs.
We as a society have traded truth for tolerance.
We’re so focused on building a culture of acceptance that we aren’t willing to tell anyone they’re wrong. So many people in our culture have faced hatred and discrimination because of their background or beliefs, that now we’re swinging to the opposite extreme to try to rectify it. We don’t want to cause people pain by denying them what they want.
But the fact that we desire something doesn’t make it right. The fact that our intentions are good doesn’t make something okay. However harsh it seems, there are some things that are just plain wrong, no matter how you slice it. And pretending that they’re right doesn’t help anyone.
I’m not saying that tolerance is a bad thing. It isn’t. But we can be tolerant and accepting of others and still speak out against evil. We have to. If we keep believing that society is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it, our culture is only going to get worse. We can’t continue to be complacent. We can’t keep elevating tolerance at the expense of truth.
A Final Thought from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes:
Lucy Gray believed that people are naturally good. Coriolanus Snow believed humanity to be violent and chaotic. I think we’re both.
People hold the power to create and destroy, to show incredible love and terrible cruelty. However kind and empathetic we are, we can become equally selfish and indifferent. At our core, both good and evil live at ease with us and at war with each other.
When God created man, He created us in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). He made us capable of love, joy, kindness, and creativity. Yet, sin entered the world, and people became slaves to it (Romans 3:9-18; John 8:34). Vanity, gluttony, unjust anger–these things come to us as naturally as breathing. Yet, most of us also desire to do good, to believe ourselves to be better than our worst attributes.
As a people inherently wicked, but wired for good, we each have a sense of where the line of evil lies. As Lucy Gray says, it’s our life’s struggle to stay on the ride side. There’s no denying that we all fall short. We lie, we cheat, we give in to pride and bitterness. None of us are perfect, but we still try to do what’s right as much as we can. However, we can never hope to stay on the right side of the line if we aren’t willing to see truth.
The justification of evil in ourselves and our society begins at its core with self-deception. Little white lies explaining away what causes us guilt. Truth alone keeps our moral compass in tact by teaching us to admit our guilt and change directions. Truth alone can set us free.
Collins, Suzanne. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. Scholastic Press, 2020.