A Fetish for Purity

Human history is rife with episodes of mass purgings, genocides, and tyrannies, driven by an ideal for purity that transcends all else. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, a dystopian society re-establishes itself in the wake of a radioactive fallout by relocating people with desirable traits to the safer haven of Mars, abandoning the less desirable people to face the hostilities of a ravaged and poisoned Earth. Society’s fetish for purity manifests itself in a contradictory social structure that aims to discriminate against the minorities, revealing humanity’s desire for superiority.

By filtering candidates for emigration based on intelligence, society practices eugenics to keep specials from contaminating the purity of the human gene pool. From the outset of the novel, humans are divided into two distinct categories: regular and special. People who do not meet the social standards for reproduction or intelligence are labeled “specials” and cannot emigrate or marry. Most regulars, in contrast, have already emigrated to Mars, because “loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race. Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind.” (PKD 16). As lesser members of society, specials even “ceased […] to be part of mankind” — according to Sims, “people can actually become so damaged biologically that they are no longer considered human, but rather part of a human subspecies” (Sims 1). Because they fall short of the standards required by society, they are stripped of their humanity and “drop out of history”; society views them as so insignificant that their existence is simply omitted from history.

Furthermore, specials are prevented from leaving Earth in an effort to preserve the “pristine heredity of the race” on Mars, where “everyone who’s smart has [already] emigrated” (PDK 6). In this way, society practices eugenics by purging the gene pool of the inferior specials, keeping only the superior genes of those who are deemed worthy of remaining in human history. By combing through humans so meticulously, society reveals a fetish for purity that mirrors other purges in history, such as the Holocaust; millions of people from minority groups were eliminated from the population to make room for supposedly superior Aryans. Similarly, this society practices eugenics to rid itself of specials— a minority group— so the regulars can start a new chapter of human history on Mars without the contamination of inferior genes. In both cases, by shunning those with undesirable traits, society demonstrates its fetish for purity.

Additionally, the social hierarchy, meant to assert the superiority of humans, is contradictory; while androids are shunned for their supposed lack of empathy, specials are shunned for their apparent deficiency in intelligence. Another minority group that faces discrimination, the androids “surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence [by evolving] beyond a major— but inferior— segment of mankind […] But new scales of achievement, for example the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, had emerged as criteria by which to judge” (30). Since humans are grouped into “several classes […] in terms of intelligence”, intellect obviously means a great deal to society. However, androids— even with their “pure intellectual capacity”— are excluded because they cannot pass an “empathy test”. Here society displays its central hypocrisy: by prizing empathy over intellect, society effectively excludes androids; however, society also demonstrates an intrinsic preference for intellect over empathy by ranking and degrading specials based only on intelligence, ignoring whatever empathic capacity they may have. In this way, only regular “humans are at the top of the hierarchy and are not subject to any prejudice” (Sims 1), thus asserting their superiority over androids and specials and ensuring that the core of society consists of biological intelligent humans and no one else. However, as the distinguishing factors between android and human become progressively more challenging to find, any test that does succeed becomes a “new scale of achievement”. Thus, “the human/android distinction […] is shown to be constructed rather than natural” (Vint 2), rendering any boundaries between the two pointless. Furthermore, the conviction that empathy is exclusive to humans is debunked by society’s hypocritical exclusion of minority groups, exposing another flaw in social structure and ultimately undermining the superiority of humans.

Deckard the bounty hunter mulls over the boundaries between humans and androids, eventually justifying the distinction with the conclusion that “empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community […] The empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct […] Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim” (PKD 31). By reserving empathy for humans alone, society yet again establishes its superiority over all else. However, the purported “unimpaired group instinct” of humans is clearly not prevalent; if it were, society’s ubiquitous discrimination against androids and specials would not have existed. Empathy would have instead compelled humans to include androids, animals, and specials into the collective. Hence, because humans do not appear to demonstrate empathy, they do not meet their own standards for being human. Ironically, the bounty hunter who considers himself to be human muses about how “the empathic gift [that humans possess] blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim” — yet he clearly represents the hunter, suggesting that his occupation retiring androids is inhumane and conflicts with empathy. Additionally, there is a parallel drawn between Deckard and an android: as a bounty hunter, Deckard works alone to track down and kill androids, which is eerily similar to how “the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator” (31). The similarities bring into question the boundaries between human and android; though humans are perceived as social creatures with a strong emphasis on empathy and the group collective, in reality Deckard works alone to kill the androids— the “solitary predators” he seems to mirror. On top of that, Deckard further violates the idea of empathic humans when he objects to sharing his joy with others: “‘They’ll have our joy,’ Rick said, ‘but we’ll lose. We’ll exchange what we feel for what they feel. Our joy will be lost.’” (174). Though Deckard clearly understands how empathy works— “we’ll exchange what we feel for what they feel” — he does not agree with its fundamental principles. He looks out only for himself, refusing to share his joy with others because he fears that his “joy will be lost”. Such a mindset corresponds to that of the stereotypical android; by social standards his response is not a human response, further undermining the hypocritical distinctions between human and android.

Society’s fetish for purity manifests itself in a contradictory social structure that aims to discriminate against the minorities, revealing humanity’s assertion of superiority. By filtering candidates for emigration based on intelligence, society practices eugenics to keep specials from contaminating the purity of the human gene pool. Furthermore, the social hierarchy, meant to assert the superiority of humans, is contradictory; while androids are shunned for their supposed lack of empathy, specials are shunned for their apparent deficiency in intelligence. The conviction that empathy is exclusive to humans is debunked by society’s hypocritical exclusion of minority groups, exposing another flaw in social structure.