by Barry Brownstein
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and
leadership at the University of Baltimore.
He is senior
contributor at Intellectual Takeout and the author of
'The Inner-Work of Leadership.'
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
social media are "custodians of our peace of mind" as they filter
out "conflicting theory and thought."
Captain Beatty is Montag's boss.
"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
noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they
feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information.
they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion
listen daily to reports of
case counts of Covid-19.
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.
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 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!"
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
Bradbury is clear:
meant practically everyone:
on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors,
lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians,
second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans,
Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or
Pretending you can
"stay happy all the time" was another social norm driving popular
demand for censorship in Fahrenheit 451.
didn't come from the Government down.
There was no dictum, no
declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass
exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank
to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to
read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals."
dystopia, to consider conflicting theories makes for unhappiness, so
Beatty lauds the fireman's mission and justifies censorship:
thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys,
the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others.
against the small tide of those who want to make everyone
unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers
in the dyke.
Don't let the torrent of melancholy and dreary philosophy drown
our world. We depend on you.
I don't think
you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as
it stands now."
future, intellectuals came under scrutiny when ideas conflicted.
"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
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
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?"
dystopia, thinking was not welcome. Even front porches were
eliminated. One of Montag's young neighbors explained why:
there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk,
rocking, and not talking when they didn't want to talk.
just sat there and thought about things, turned things over…
they didn't want people sitting like that, doing nothing,
rocking, talking; that was the wrong kind of social life.
too much. And they had time to think."
is today embraced as a way to keep us 'safe' from Covid-19.
distancing also keeps us safe from "conflicting theories and
Chairs have been
removed from social gathering places.
Hallways are quiet.
stands around the water cooler.
People have few places to talk with
The parallel to
porches is haunting.
Perhaps you are
sensing a shift in social norms undermining parental rights and the
sanctity of the family...
a push for government-funded pre-school.
environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That's why
we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now
we're almost snatching them from the cradle."
justification of looting.
Some claim that rioters are merely
damaging property, not people...
Before he began to
see the evil he was part of, Montag eased his conscience with this
similar line of thinking:
hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things
really couldn't be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things
don't scream or whimper."
Warning his readers
of policies shaped by the majority, Bradbury writes,
dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle
of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority."
claim the right to destroy freedom when
they get a majority vote of the people.
This dangerous reasoning
is antithetical to the founding principles of this country...
We can take a
lesson from Bradbury's character Professor Faber, who recognized the
consequences of his own self-censorship:
"I saw the way
things were going, a long time back. I said nothing.
I'm one of
the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would
listen to the 'guilty,' but I did not speak and thus became
How ironic that
today, claiming they are "woke," progressives clamor for tyranny and
In Bradbury's world the "woke" saw through the lies of
tyranny and censorship. Bradbury would exhort us to avoid expediency
and speak out to prevent the worst.
In his novel,
Bradbury didn't take a deep dive into the psychology of saying
recent essay on mask mandates by businesses provoked a strong
sympathetic to my point that businesses respond to consumer demand.
Yet, some believe that business policy is being shaped by a small
but frightened and very vocal minority who complain loudly to
managers about customers not wearing a mask.
Going against the
vocal herd takes courage...
In his book
The Heart Aroused, poet David Whyte, who works
with businesses on organizational change issues, shares a universal
"A man I know
finds himself in a meeting room at the very edge of speech; he
is approaching his moment of reckoning, he is looking for
support from his fellow executives around the table… the CEO is
pacing up and down on the slate gray carpet.
He has asked,
in no uncertain terms, for their opinion of the plan he wants to
put through. 'I want to know what you all think about this,' he
demands, 'on a scale of
one to ten.'"
Whyte explains the
CEO made it plain he wanted to hear "ten."
thinks the plan is terrible, and rumors are that other executives
feel the same. As the CEO goes around the room, Whyte's friend hears
his colleague, one by one, say "ten."
When it is his
everything he believes, (Whyte's friend) hears a mouselike,
faraway voice, his own, saying 'ten'."
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's theory of the
"our willingness to express an opinion is a direct
result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be."
believe our belief is popular, we will make a point of signaling
that we are part of the herd.
Like Whyte's friend, we will avoid
expressing our point of view when we sense it will be unpopular.
If you think the
public is empowered by social media to express unpopular views, you
would be mistaken. As in
Fahrenheit 451, people censor themselves
first, even before Facebook and Twitter add their own censorship.
In 2014, the
Pew Research Center surveyed the public about their willingness
to freely express their views about the 2013 Edward Snowden
The survey revealed
less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story on social media
than they were in person."
Social media was
not an outlet for those concerned about expressing an unpopular
Consistent with the
"spiral of silence" theory and compatible with Bradbury's dystopian
future, no matter what the setting, people are reluctant to share an
A 2020 Cato survey found 62%,
say the political climate these days prevents them from saying
things they believe because others might find them offensive."
how many say
nothing to their neighbors and colleagues about Covid-19 policies
for fear of being accused of not 'valuing' human lives...?
silence helped pave the way for the public's embrace of
In 2020, Fahrenheit 451 is far more than a
chilling, cautionary tale.
To reverse the
spiral of silence we must make space for candid conversations by
thoughtfully considering alternative viewpoints...
Brave New World