For decades, it has been common to call authoritarian new laws, norms, or government actions “Orwellian.” In 1984, George Orwell so brilliantly portrayed a nightmarish future that his name became synonymous with almost anything one wishes to describe as oppressive. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, meanwhile, provided a rather different but equally bleak vision of the future that is frequently invoked to illuminate our current malaise.
Amid the technological chaos and Western culture wars of the 21st century, thinkpiece writers sporadically debate which of these novels more accurately foresaw our present predicament. Modern China most clearly embodies Orwell’s vision, and elements of both novels can be found in contemporary Western societies. However, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 offered perhaps a more accurate warning than either. Published in 1953, Bradbury’s novel is as gloomy and prescient as either Orwell’s or Huxley’s, but its explanation of how a dystopia is created comes closer to providing an understanding of our new reality.
The primary difference between Huxley’s dystopia and that described by Orwell is the methodology through which humanity is controlled by authoritarian governments. Huxley argued that humans would be tricked into embracing their own enslavement via anti-depressants and various hedonistic distractions, while Orwell held that compliance would more easily be achieved through censorship, mind control, and violence. In a letter to Orwell (his childhood French teacher) upon reading 1984, Huxley insisted that “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.” Certainly, Bradbury’s novel features elements of both; citizens in his future are subject to state violence and also pacified by pleasure and drugs. However, the key distinction here, and Bradbury’s great contribution to dystopian literature, is that we would choose our own intellectual enslavement as well.
In rather a clichéd dystopian trope, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of a man awakening to the reality that society is profoundly oppressive and resolving to resist. The protagonist is a fireman named Montag, who comes to question the nature of his profession. But in this vision of the future, firemen no longer extinguish fires, they start them. They are tasked with burning books, which are now forbidden, and with the help of an eight-legged Mechanical Hound, they doggedly hunt for literature and destroy it. Technology fosters alienation, but systems of control are rarely foisted upon the population by a government.
In 1984, information is carefully controlled by the state. In Brave New World, citizens are bombarded with so much information they are unable to make intelligent judgments. In Fahrenheit 451, however, people choose ignorance as they come to reject the complexity and uncertainty provided by literature—with the proliferation of more exciting, short-form sources of media, books have gradually lost their appeal. This is explained to Montag by his boss, Beatty:
Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comicbooks survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It 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 God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.
Initially thought of as boring, books are later considered dangerous. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Beatty tells Montag, for it promotes psychological confusion and social disharmony, allowing those who read to gain more knowledge than others, a kind of inequality now deemed unconstitutional. “Not everyone [is] born free and equal,” Beatty explains. But by outlawing literature and allowing people to grow addicted to vapid forms of entertainment, chained to their devices, “everyone [is] made equal.” Reading, it is implied, leads to personal unhappiness and social instability:
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. 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. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.
Bradbury predicted that people, disturbed by confusing or challenging ideas, might one day demand censorship for themselves and protection from any information that pierced the veil of their own simplified reality. This is, of course, welcomed by the government, but it seldom forcibly imposed. “Remember,” an old man called Faber says, “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”
In a society now dominated by reassuringly reductive tweets and memes, where supposedly learned people choose to boycott long-form podcasts, encourage publishers to ditch books by controversial authors, or lean on streaming providers to severe ties with comedians and other artists, this prediction from 1953 sounds eerily familiar. The Internet places an impossibly vast array of information at our fingertips, yet our apps allow us to pick and choose which facts to believe and which ideological silos we wish to inhabit. And from those choices comes the inevitable desire to stamp out contrary ideas that make us uncomfortable. Our governments may hold back some information in the name of political expediency or national security, but most of what is censored today is at the behest of the public.
Book burning may not have much allure these days, but book banning and de-platforming are in vogue. None of this, of course, is entirely new, even if “cancel culture” is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon. In 1994, as the first wave of political correctness befouled Western culture, Bradbury mused on the accuracy of his predictions. Fahrenheit 451, he told an interviewer, “works even better because we have political correctness now. Political correctness is the real enemy these days. … It’s thought control and freedom of speech control.” Of course, the problem has only deepened since the advent of social media and the echo chambers it has enabled—people feel safe sharing and hearing views that are accepted by their peer group, and reject those that contradict them out of hand. The astonishing power of the Internet has helped to mobilise angry mobs of ill-informed (albeit sometimes well-meaning) people eager to purge whatever is inconvenient, unpleasant, or otherwise disagreeable.
In both Bradbury’s novel and our present reality, a perverse pleasure is derived from self-righteous acts of censorship. Fahrenheit 451 opens with the line: “It was a pleasure to burn,” and those who engage in de-platforming, book banning, and public shaming today are clearly enjoying themselves. Not only do these activities make them feel virtuous but they also enhance in-group solidarity and boost social status. There is no shame in them, either, and no thought spared for the freedoms lost, the ideas silenced, or the lives destroyed in the process. This is how Montag describes his job early in the book:
You weren't 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, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place.
The woman in front of Montag does not scream or cry out. Rather, in an act that finally shocks Montag into questioning his job and the system he serves, she sets herself on fire. Her agonising death makes no impact on the other firemen. They remain proud to burn books, and believe that those foolish enough to read them deserve what they get. While Bradbury’s fictional society incarcerates, banishes, and even assassinates those who hide books, modern society prefers its transgressors to undergo ordeals of public humiliation. And although the Right decries cancel culture and the Left denies its existence, both zealously pursue censorship when their preferred taboos are violated.
Like the denizens of Bradbury’s dystopia, today’s Left and Right agree that some ideas should simply not be heard, discussed, or analysed lest they be embraced. It is far easier to silence them altogether and to shame their adherents pour encourager les autres. The prophetic accuracy of Bradbury’s work is evident in the recent controversy over Joe Rogan’s podcast. While Rogan’s views on vaccination are regrettable and profoundly unhelpful to America’s attempts to battle the pandemic, his podcast is also a near-perfect simulacrum of the books burned by the firemen in Fahrenheit 451.
The Joe Rogan Experience is the very antithesis of our tweet and meme culture, where everything is reduced to a grossly oversimplified and easily digestible phrase or image that robs discussion of nuance. The strength of Rogan’s show is that he engages in long-form conversations about difficult topics with a wide array of guests, many of whom are experts in their field. Admittedly, there are more than a few crackpots in that mix, and Rogan’s own views on some of the topics he discusses can be outlandish and dismayingly misinformed. Nevertheless, his show offers precisely the sort of thought-provoking exchanges that the inhabitants of Bradbury’s dystopia want banned.
It is hardly surprising that many of Rogan’s detractors demonstrate a startling ignorance of the show and its host, and are content to denounce him on the basis of soundbites, out-of-context quotations, and false assumptions about his political leanings. It is common to hear him disparaged as a conservative because, in liberal and progressive circles, this is not a mere description of political allegiance but a slur—an effective means of shutting someone down and ensuring that they cannot easily be defended by those disinclined to help political opponents. There does not need to be any evidence for such an accusation; the mere suggestion of it is enough to denote someone as an enemy of the in-group and therefore a legitimate target for opprobrium. But Rogan’s views are complex and unique to him—his political perspective is, if anything, somewhat to the left of centre, which only makes him and other heterodox thinkers dangerous to those further out on the political spectrum. There, people prefer to exist in purified bubbles, wilfully insulated from debate, just like the people in Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury was right that people would choose self-censorship, led into ignorance by technological innovations that make open discourse and thought unpalatable. Were it a government that imposed such a rule, there would be an uproar, at least in Western societies. But gently coaxed by algorithms, people have voluntarily gravitated towards simple, comfortable ideas and begun to reject complexity, nuance, and the possibility that contrary opinions are not necessarily immoral or even incorrect.
Any reversal of this trend intended to arrest the slide into the abyss must start with an acknowledgment that censorship, whether top-down or bottom-up, is detrimental to society. Even when an idea is ignorant, it should still be heard and discussed. As Faber explains to Montag in Act Three, books do not guarantee that we will make smart choices, but they give us a far better chance of doing so because they “remind us what asses and fools we are.” When books are burned and voices are silenced, we not only lose outdated and misguided opinions, but everything else we need to make rational and informed decisions.
At the end of the book, a drifter named Granger offers Montag a glimmer of hope. He compares the burning of books to “a silly damn bird called a Phoenix” and says that humans repeat history and burn themselves up over and over. However:
...we've got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we'll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them.
Throughout the novel, people are so distracted by technological marvels, so addicted to vacuous forms of entertainment, and so utterly deluded, that they are unaware of a war unfolding on their doorstep. The “funeral pyre” Granger mentions is a nuclear holocaust that occurs as Montag meets with the drifters in the countryside, presumably ending almost all human life in the city. Given the bleakness of Fahrenheit 451, it is strange that it ends on a hopeful note, with Montag and the exiles returning to the city to rebuild society. Perhaps this seems hopelessly optimistic, but without this act of courage, we are left in a world stripped of possibility.
There are elements of Orwell’s, Huxley’s, and Bradbury’s dystopian visions in our present reality, but perhaps we prefer to describe them all as “Orwellian” because it implies that our circumstances have been imposed upon us against our will. It is painful to accept that we are complicit, and that we are currently living out perhaps the darkest of those visions by demanding to live in ignorance. Yet it is precisely because we have chosen this fate that we have the ability to alter it.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.