From Fahrenheit 451 to Cancel Culture: Bradbury Predicted People Would Demand Tyranny

Over the years Nash Montana has done yeoman’s work for us translating Swiss dialects and German. In the following essay she expands her repertoire with a look at the dark heart of the Culture Wars.

From Fahrenheit 451 to Cancel Culture: Bradbury Predicted People Would Demand Tyranny

by Nash Montana

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 flies drones to control the people, and burns books.

Read Fahrenheit 451 again to discover why people wanted their tyrannical government to burn books. Bradbury wrote the book 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 explains, “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. 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.

In Bradbury’s dystopia, thinking was not welcome. Even front porches were eliminated. One of Montag’s young neighbors explained why:

“People sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they 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. People talked too much. And they had time to think.”

Social distancing is today embraced as a way to keep us safe from COVID-19. Social distancing also keeps us safe from “conflicting theories and thoughts.” Chairs have been removed from social gathering places. Hallways are quiet. Nobody stands around the water cooler. People have few places to talk with each other. The parallel to porches is haunting.

Perhaps you are sensing a shift in social norms undermining parental rights and the sanctity of the family. Bradbury foresaw a push for government-funded pre-school. Captain Beatty explains, “The home 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.”

Bradbury also anticipated today’s 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: “You weren’t hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And 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, “The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority.” Today, politicians 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 recognizes 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 guilty myself.”

How ironic that today, claiming they are “woke,” progressives clamor for tyranny and censorship. 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 nothing. Take the mask mandate of today. Mask mandates by businesses provoke a strong response. Many were sympathetic to the 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 masks.

Going against the vocal herd takes courage. In his book The Heart Aroused, the poet David Whyte, who works with businesses on organizational change issues, shares a universal story:

“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.” Whyte’s friend 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 turn, “against everything he believes, (Whyte’s friend) hears a mouselike, faraway voice, his own, saying ‘ten.’“

According to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory of the spiral of silence, “our willingness to express an opinion is a direct result of how popular or unpopular we perceive it to be.” When we 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 revelations. The survey revealed that “people were less willing to discuss the Snowden-NSA story on social media than they were in person.” Social media were not an outlet for those concerned about expressing an unpopular view.

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 unpopular view. A 2020 Cato survey found 62% “of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

Today, how many say nothing to their neighbors and colleagues about COVID-19 policies for fear of being accused of not valuing human lives?

In Fahrenheit 451, silence helped pave the way for the public’s embrace of tyranny. 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.

11 thoughts on “From Fahrenheit 451 to Cancel Culture: Bradbury Predicted People Would Demand Tyranny

  1. When Captain Beatty had Montag over at his house, Montag noticed that Beatty had quite a library. When Montag asked Beatty about all the books that he had, Beatty replied, “I don’t read them, that’s why they don’t need to be burnt.”
    I suppose the same could be said for our book collections.
    I did like the ending in which Montag had memorized a portion of a book. It was the Bible and the portion was the book of Deuteronomy. Nice. Ray Bradbury wrote 451 here in L.A. and had settled here. I attended an open book session that was held for him at the Claremont Colleges, Harcourt Fenton Mudd College if I recall correctly.

    • I used to see Mr. Bradbury occasionally because we went to the same restaurant on Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. He always had a driver to take him to lunch at the one of the last Hamburger Hamlets in the city. I always spoke to him and he was very cordial to me. I have read all his books especially 451 but prefer his Martian Chronicles. It’s good memories for me because he was the greatest science fiction author on the planet.

      • there was always something wholesome about what he wrote. I loved his writing which made me feel right at home as thought I was listening to him recounting his past experiences in the living room by the light of the fireplace. “Something Wicked This Way Comes” I believe was a rather prescient warning as to what our educational system has become. At times his prescience has had me wondering if the Lord was helping him write so He could provide a wake-up call to those of us sci-fi addicts.

  2. Nice idea this “spiral of silence”
    I can see this happening all right.
    But guess what? I don’t give a [hoot].
    So I say whatever I want to say.
    Lol :):):)
    If anybody wants to challenge me… Meet me at dawn#
    With your knife.
    I will be waiting for you…

  3. As for dystopian novels,I remind Jules Verne’s :” Paris in the year 1960″, written a hundred years before. In Verne’s vision, readers of books were outcasts who had to gather in conspirative circles.
    Not a very fascinating read but remarkable in its foresight.
    And how about Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward?The year 2000 seen from 1900?

    • Hello Herb,
      Thank you for the tip! I am a huge Verne fan, but haven’t re-read anything by him recently. My favorite Verne story is “The Eternal Adam”.

      I checked my library and I am currently not in possession of “Paris in the year 1960”, but thanks to opeblibrary dot org, I can borrow the book online, but only in French.

      In my opinion, Verne was another man with a prophecy gift. I’ll also check out Edward Bellamy. Thanks!

  4. I am reminded of a ole saying I once heard from my childhood that has always stuck with me, it was written at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, ” Today they silence our voices, tomorrow, they shall hear the sound of rifles in response”. I read it as, they can only silence us for only so long before the fire within men burns hot and they express themselves in very hostile ways and means.

  5. Hello Everyone,

    thanks for reading this. All of this came about because I finally achieved a life long dream I’ve had, of setting up and organizing and categorizing my very own library; a room to sit in, to listen to my two canary birds tweet to each other, to have a cat on my lap (lap warmer with built-in buzzer), and read one of my 2488 books I now own, but have kept in boxes, well packed with cotton and categorized and alphabetized, for the last 25 to 30 years.

    Long before I moved to the United States a little over 23 years ago, I started to pack books in boxes. I am not exactly sure anymore why I did that, at the time I was still living in Switzerland.

    First leaving my parent’s house to live on my own, then moving from place to place that was affordable and then finally – because the house I lived in was ‘old and in the way’ as Jerry Garcia would say – it just made it that much easier instead of moving to yet another expensive apartment in Zurich, I just moved to the United States. Container with all my belongings followed.

    Years went by, the digital age came, never left, and I added an extensive amount of new books to my old book collection. And because I changed location in Montana a couple of times as well, more books ended up in boxes, lovingly wrapped, labeled, and empty spaces filled with cotton so they wouldn’t slide around. Seriously.

    To make a long story short, two weeks ago I FINALLY went to the storage place and I loaded all of my book boxes onto my truck, brought them home, and set up my library upstairs in my house, in what I call “the alcove”. The Alcove is a 12ft by 8ft recess in the wall, with one giant window, overlooking the Beartooth and the Pryor Mountain range. Every inch of wall is now covered in bookshelves.

    I sorted them by author, by category (fiction, non-fiction, psychology, philosophy etc), and by language (French, German, Swiss, Italian, English).

    The coolest thing about all of this? My 13 year old daughter ‘AJ’ has to walk by these books every day, multiple times, coming from and going to her bedroom. The images of these books are now forever embedded in her memory. She will not be able to escape these shades and images of an older, more kinder world, when people spoke respectful and in full sentences.

    If I fail in everything else I can say at least, I didn’t fail in this. AJ will inherit these books. And hopefully, every now and then, she will take one into her hands and start reading it.

    Along with the books, I’ve also sorted and categorized photo negatives, going back to 1979. That’s when my dad begun processing film and I helped him in his darkroom. It was an amazing time.

    That’s all!

  6. Before COVID-19 we were already living in a peace of mind tyranny. COVID-19 social distancing may have actually undermined the public bench group think and media inspired water cooler wisecracking. Inadvertently millions of people were unchained from the enforced socialization of the progressives peace of mind tyranny, set free to rock, talk and think on their front porches.

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