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The “Lord of the Flies” argument

The “Lord of the Flies” argument goes like this. Let’s say I want to lower the voting age, or give students more constitutional protections in school. Someone using the argument would reply, “Bad idea. That would undermine adult authority and lead to a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario.”

However, this “Lord of the Flies” argument isn’t so much an argument as it is an appeal to a kind of folkloric fear of young people. Stories pass down, telling about a hell on earth created by empowered young people. If we buy into this mythology, then we have no trouble finding evidence to support it. But if we don’t, then we have no trouble disproving it. The “Lord of the Flies” argument convinces only those who are already convinced.

The actual book Lord of the Flies

Now, it’s important to clarify that the “Lord of the Flies” argument is not the same thing as the actual book, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. On the one hand, the argument is used as a kind of parable to vindicate adult authority. On the other hand, the actual book has essentially the opposite purpose: it is a criticism of adult authority. This isn’t a fringe interpretation. It’s what the author himself has said:

The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?

The problem Golding illustrates in his book isn’t that young people are evil without adult supervision. The problem is that everyone is evil, and that society will inevitably be a product of that evil. It has no power to “rescue” us.

What is the real conflict in the book?

The book’s main symbolic struggle takes place, not between uncivilized childhood and civilized adulthood, but between two systems of government. These are represented by two boys: the hero Ralph, and the villain Jack.

At first, everyone democratically elects Ralph as their leader. His power comes from the people, from the consent of the governed, and it stays that way. In his society, each person has an equal chance to speak in assembly. It’s also significant that Ralph never uses his power in a punitive way.

Jack, Ralph’s evil counterpart, is the first one to introduce the idea of punishment. He eventually secedes from Ralph’s society and becomes dictator (“chief”) of the island. He gets the other boys to join him by appealing to their lowest fears and desires. He also begins punishing disobedience with torture, thereby introducing the first criminal justice system to the island.

Are we Ralph or Jack?

If we look at these two boys’ political systems and compare them to our own, we will find that institutions like the public school system—supposedly designed to protect young people from their own savagery—are structured more like Jack’s dictatorship than Ralph’s egalitarian society. We can see this in the following table:

Jack’s Tribe Public School System Ralph’s Tribe
Absolute dictatorship Paternalistic oligarchy Democratic republic
Emphasis on tribal pride Emphasis on school spirit Emphasis on rescue
Distinctive war paint, hair tied back Distinctive uniform, face paint No distinctive dress
No individual rights Limited individual rights Rights to vote, assemble, speech, seek rescue
Violent paranoia about mythical “beast” Violent paranoia about gangs, drugs, etc. Fear mitigated by voices of reason
Consent of the governed disappears No consent of the governed Full consent of the governed through election
Outlets for id: dancing, hunting, feasting Outlets for id: dancing, sports, pep rallies Outlets for id: none structured
Based on fear of punishment, “beast” Based on fear of punishment, failure Based on shared goals and mutual respect

Young people grow up under a rule much more like Jack’s than Ralph’s. The goal of youth rights is to tip the balance the other way. Of course, critics could argue that young people aren’t capable of living in Ralph’s tribe—that’s why it fell apart. They could argue that a Jack-like tribe is all young people can handle. But if this is true, then we have to ask: who is our Jack? Who is our “chief” in charge of young people? The answer should be obvious.

When we first meet Jack, we see him as he was in “civilized” life. He was a prefect, the head of the boys’ choir. We see him force the other boys to wear their hot choir robes and march in file. Whom in our society does he remind us of? Who places a similar importance on titles and ranks? Who makes young people wear uniforms and march in single file? The answer should be obvious.

Who is there in our society who, like Jack, appeals to young people’s worst nature? Who, like Jack, uses fear and bribery and manipulation in order to get young people to do as they say? Who, like Jack, enjoys jokes about mistreating or hurting young people, and sometimes actually carries them out? The answer should be obvious.

It is adults who play the role of Jack. It is adults who run this society, this “tribe”. And it is adults who have most refined and exalted the evil part of human nature.

The great irony of Lord of the Flies

The greatest irony of Lord of the Flies is that most readers think the boys on the island are monsters. To think this way is to fall into the exact same trap the boys did. They took their own sins, and projected them onto an imaginary external monster: the “beast”. Yet even though most older people have read this cautionary tale at some point, they haven’t learned from it. Instead, they’ve actually used the story to project their own sins onto yet another external monster: young people. They might as well chant Kill the beast in the hallways when they paddle misbehaving students, or tackle middle schoolers for trying to break up fights.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the book is the reason the “Lord of the Flies” argument exists. It’s a grotesque parody of Golding’s lesson—or perhaps a grotesque kind of tribute to it. Those who fall into this trap of scapegoating have not only missed the point of Lord of the Flies, but have proven it as well.