How we censor ourselves
Believe it or not, the technology themes found in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 were not meant to be the major themes. Instead, his depiction of future technology and man’s relationship with it were meant to support the story’s bigger themes concerning censorship. We’d like to examine these complex themes of censorship in relation to “trigger warnings” and politics on college campuses. But first, it’s worth diving a little deeper into Bradbury’s logic behind his themes of censorship.
In a future America where books are burned and such book burnings are enforced by the government (particularly the fire departments–which are now starting fires rather than putting them out), the reader assumes censorship must be the government’s doing. However, the reader and the book’s protagonist (a conflicted firefighter) Guy Montag find out that that’s not the case at all.
At the end of a powerful monologue explaining how the country came to its current state of censored affairs, Fire Captain Beatty sums it up best with a tone of arrogance and ignorance (fitting to that of the Fahrenheit society): “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” (p. 58).
Technology. Mass exploitation. Minority pressure. These, according to Bradbury, are the three grinding cogs within the societal machine of censorship. It’s scary to think that censorship can trickle up and not just down. And yet, if we are to look at today’s society with our mobile devices, social media platforms, and ever-expanding identity politics, Bradbury isn’t too far off the mark in his prediction of censorship and the muddying of free speech–especially in relation to politics.
…if we are to look at today’s society with our mobile devices, social media platforms, and ever-expanding identity politics, Bradbury isn’t too far off the mark in his prediction of censorship and the muddying of free speech–especially in relation to politics.
In 2016, the idea of trigger warnings being used in college classrooms gained much attention. At best, “trauma triggers” were justified in the classroom when dealing with content that might “bring on intense emotional and even physical reactions, like a full-blown panic attack” in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to “combat violence, sexual abuse, or other trauma.” But, on the other end of the spectrum is the idea that trigger warnings can be used for content (including public figures) that might be politically offensive and “create a situation in which students opt out of learning experiences simply because they don’t want to confront their own assumptions about the world.” (Kamenetz, 2016)
In a March 2018 WaPo article titled “College students support free speech–unless it offends them,” Jeffrey J. Selingo paints a stark reality of modern-day college students and their views of free speech as compared to that of previous generations. He reflects on his own college experience when Phyllis Schlafly, “the conservative political activist best known for her campaign against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment,” gave a speech on campus: “There were no barricades around the building where she spoke…there were no state police in riot gear… And most of all, no one shouted her down on one of the most liberal college campuses in the country.” Now picture Ben Shapiro showing up at that same college today. It’s much different, isn’t it?
(Side note: check out the podcast episode More Perfect: Sex Appeal, by RadioLab. It includes Phyllis Schlafly and her views countering those held by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)
Based on a 2018 poll of 3,000 college students, the numbers show that students “generally endorse the ideals of free speech and campuses that encourage the discussion of a variety of ideas. But once that speech begins to infringe on their values, they’re likely to support policies that place limits on speech.” (Selingo, 2018)
Additionally, Selingo analyzes reasons for why there’s been a drop in supporting campuses that “promote a variety of views.” One of the reasons discussed is social media. Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, told Selingo, “There’s a strong suggestion from this study that college students are souring on social media… Students are much more likely to report having discussions of political and social issues on social media rather than in public areas of campus.”
“There’s a strong suggestion from this study that college students are souring on social media.”
There is a real difference in experiencing a conversation online compared to experiencing that same topic of conversation in person. Busteed added: “This is a huge challenge and opportunity for both students and higher education leaders to bring this dialogue back to campus.” But, what makes this so challenging? Well, there is a level of uneasiness at even the thought of facing opposing views in person. And, it’s much easier to hide behind a screen.
Let’s go back to Fahrenheit 451 for a minute to further explain why people wish to avoid discussing conflicting views and values in person. According to Bradbury, we don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t want our values and paradigms to be questioned or compromised. So, we avoid it. Or, as Bradbury suggests, we eventually encourage society to start hammering one another into a straight line so that we can reduce the chances of ever having to find ourselves in those uncomfortable situations. Here is more from that same monologue delivered by antagonist Captain Beatty to Montag:
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. (p. 58)
The biggest challenges are our habits with social media and our attitude toward discussing politically charged topics. We don’t want mountains. We’ll give up pleasant surprises so as not to risk any unpleasant surprises. We’ll give up insightful conversations so as not to risk finding ourselves in any heated conversations. Or, perhaps, we find ourselves in conversations that are so heated any chance of insight is completely torched.
When it comes to politics, we’d rather step out, or shout over, or hide under blankets of ignorance rather than feel the cool breeze of a different wind.
You know, the kind you find in the mountains.
- Where do you see examples of technology, mass exploitation, or minority pressures (identity politics) influencing free speech in our society?
- In his WaPo article, Selingo goes on to report that “increasingly students think that social media can stifle expression because of a fear of being attacked or because people block those they disagree with.” Why is this concerning in relation to democracy?
- Aside from the college classroom, trigger warnings (of all kinds) are also becoming a growing trend in theatre. Consider reading this 2018 NYTimes article “Brace Yourself in Act II: Trigger Warnings Come to the Stage.” While trauma triggers are more easily justified, what are your thoughts regarding the other warnings theatre companies are issuing to playgoers?
Bradbury, R. (1953) Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Ray Books.
Kamenetz, A. (2016, September 7) Half of Professors in NPR Ed Survey Have Used ‘Trigger Warnings’. NPR Ed.
Paulson, M. (2018, November 18) Brace Yourself in Act II: Trigger Warnings Come to the Stage. The New York Times.
Selingo, J. J. (2018, March 12) College students support free speech–unless it offends them. The Washington Post.