Even if it has been a while since you read Fahrenheit 451, you might remember Ray Bradbury’s classic for its portrayal of a dystopian future in which an authoritarian government burns books.
Read Fahrenheit 451 again to discover why people wanted their tyrannical government to burn books. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, yet the parallels to today’s social climate for censorship are haunting.
Bradbury’s protagonist is Guy Montag, who, like all firemen in Bradbury’s future, burns books.
In Bradbury’s dystopia, firemen became “custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors.”
Today’s mainstream and social media are “custodians of our peace of mind” as they filter out “conflicting theory and thought.” Captain Beatty is Montag’s boss. Beatty explained, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.”
If you don’t want people debating questions such as Covid-19 policy, Beatty has the ticket: “Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”
Today, millions listen daily to reports of case counts of Covid-19. Like Bradbury predicted, listeners can recite the numbers but have no context to make sense of the numbers. Many have little idea that important scientists and doctors have advocated alternatives to lockdowns that could save lives and abate catastrophic impacts on economies. As in Bradbury’s world, many are working tirelessly to disparage and censor alternative views.
After Montag questions his role as a book burner, he recites Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold to neighbors. His neighbors were shocked at the feelings the poem provoked. One cries out, “Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words… Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!”
Incredibly, Bradbury anticipated today’s social climate where people claim censorship is justified because someone hurt their feelings.
Beatty explains a dominant social norm justifying censorship: Do not offend minorities. Bradbury is clear; “minorities” meant practically everyone:
In Bradbury’s future, intellectuals came under scrutiny when ideas conflicted. The word “intellectual” became a “swear word.” The public dreaded “the unfamiliar” and disdained a world where merit mattered. Again, Bradbury has Beatty explain the mindset behind such thinking:
We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well read man?