The Canard of Potential

It often seems that there are some people who no matter how hard their life gets, no matter how much they are repeatedly exploited by the entities that surround them, never fail to keep moving forward through their suffering and humiliation; focusing on nothing else but a private conviction that somehow future circumstances will provide the means by which they will escape their lowly situation.

It is popularly referred to as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to always advance forward against the hostile odds of life.  And many individuals proudly carry the torments of their life’s struggles as badges of honor.  However, despite the endless amount of cheer and hoot about how such determination is always deserving of the utmost praise from all factors of society, it can’t go without notice that those who cheer and hoot the loudest about the great virtuousness of the lowly man are almost always those who stand well above his “noble” rank.  To put it in another way: it seems very strange to me how it’s those who wield the most power and influence, in (at least) the public sphere of the sociopolitical scene, who are the most vocal about their sympathies for all those in society who are by default the most powerless.  I would think that if the status of the impoverished and voiceless was so admirable to the socially affluent, the latter would be doing more to bring themselves to the former’s virtuous level.

The rhetoric of elected officials is easy to understand in this matter; they need to get elected, to get elected they need votes from the electorate, the people are the electorate, hence the politician will praise the virtue of the common people from dawn ’till dusk (except those people who lie outside of his/her political base of course , they can thoroughly go to hell for all anyone cares).  But it isn’t just politicians who follow this “virtue of the lowly” narrative, it is just about every information source operating.  And the one thing that is constantly being reiterated is how those who may be at the bottom now need not worry, because as long as they work, and sweat, and struggle, they will eventually have the opportunity to escape their status–they have potential.  They have the potential to do better, to become more, to achieve something, to be masters of their own destiny.  And those for whom the message is meant to resonate with the most, those who wish for more in life because they honestly do not possess the means by which to live comfortably, will embrace the validity of their yet untapped potential.  “I may be at the bottom now, but eventually I will get my due,” is the popular sentiment of the potential-laden man.

About a century and a half ago, when the southern portion of the United States briefly seceded from the Union in order to form the Confederate States of America, many (if not most) of the white residents living in the new territory gladly signed up to fight for the cause of the Confederacy against those pesky Yankees.  What was the cause?–The right to own and keep the country’s black population as slaves.  At this point I’m imagining a crowd of my southerners screaming in anger, “No!  No!  No!  It was not about slavery, it was all about state sovereignty.  They were fighting against the intruding Federal government, trying to control the South’s economy and way of life.”  Indeed, they were fighting for state sovereignty and states rights.  Unfortunately, the primary right our southern states wanted to retain full sovereignty over was the right to keep black people as property, hence it is fair to say that the economic system they wanted to protect was one that rested on the enslavement of other human beings.  (Which is why every one of the individual Confederate State constitutions explicitly mention the right to retain slavery as a valid form of commerce.)  However, it needs to be remembered that a great deal of the fighting population of the Confederate Army were non-slave owning white men, who were too impoverished to ever be able to set foot in the hallowed farming grounds of the pseudo-aristocratic plantation owner who benefited most from the South’s peculiar institution.

Which ought to leave one wondering, why did so many men readily die for a system that offered them no direct benefits?  The simple answer is that our forebears were racist fools, who no matter how illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and economically broken they were kept by the system they so cherished, they could not let go of the deluded idea that all of these negatives were unimportant as long as they could lay claim to the coveted price of being called white.  For as long as they had that, they still had potential for more.  The fact that this potential had no chance of being realized, that by all accounts they–and their direct descendents–have always and will always die just as illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and broken as they had lived, makes no difference in the great scheme of such a mindset.  Because the power of potential is not to lift one’s physical self from the obstacles in one’s depressing environment, but to lift one’s spirit and numb the physical body from the pangs of life’s depressing obstacles–that is to say, it holds no real powers at all.

The individual’s hope in her/his potential is the greatest placebo a mind can fall prey to.  Rather than motivating a person to reach higher, and strive for better, it makes her/him content with the lowly position s/he is inhabiting now, on the indolent basis that “my time will come eventually, after all, I have the potential to do better.”  It makes one cope with personal setbacks and failures, and even nourishes a certain level of pride in both, spiritually feeding on the mock appreciation heralded at the paupers’ “noble suffering” by the physically well-fed princes.  All the while life goes by, as we sit back daydreaming about alternate existences we could have pursued but didn’t, and never will.  If I could think of one sentiment to erase out of the human consciousness it would be our liege to the hope of potential.

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Technology and Human Dependency

It is at times said–by people eager to have things to say–that modern society is too dependent on technology.  Personally, I consider this to be a prime example of a nonsensical statement.  For what is modern society, but its technological advancements?  The progress of technology is the characteristic by which we define modern society from archaic civilizations.  So, how on earth does it make sense to speak as if our priced modernity could have existed independent of our technological dependency?

A more pointed (and coherent) question would be to ask, has the technology we depend on to function in modern society surpassed our intellectual comprehension of it?  The answer to that is undoubtedly, yes.  In the past, technological machinery was simple (i.e. wheelbarrow, pulley crane, water wheel, etc.), and easily replicable by the common observer.  Today, the technology we use on a daily basis is well beyond our comprehension.  How exactly does the wi-fi on my laptop work in correlation to my internet service? Hell, if I know.  I just know how to log on to my screen name, and let the machine do the work from there.  I’ll be damned if I was ever asked to replicate the phenomenon from scratch, even if I was given an unlimited amount of resources to do it with.  Same goes for my cell phone, and various other appliances I depend on to function in modern society.  I understand there are individuals who actually do understand all of the basic components, and indeed can create the whole machinery from naught, but that doesn’t change the fact that the population at large cannot.  Most of us simply push button on/off on appliance XYZ, and don’t give the rest of it much thought.  Not necessarily because we’re too lazy to look up each individual component that goes into creating the machinery, but because the knowledge that goes into it is too far out of our intellectual depth for us to ever be able to truly grasp it.

Although technology is guaranteed to become even more complex as it progresses, human intelligence (as a collective) may very likely remain unchanged due to there being no real environmental pressure for us to understand the mechanism behind a piece of technology, beyond its practical utility to serve our needs.  So, what are we to make of this?  I can see both negative and positive points people might raise, but none of that really matters to me.  All I know is that humanity is at a developmental point where to speak of social modernity, absent of technological dependency, is an impossibility.  If human society continues to progress, so will technology, and both will do so entirely with complete dependence on the other.

Utopia is Dead!

Utopia once stood as an ideal place that mankind ought to strive to bring about, as a means to elevate and enhance the human experience for all members of our species.  Where it once entailed a spirit of optimism and hope, utopian now stands as a pejorative term against those we see as possessing an irredeemable naivete about life.

“Fool, can’t you see that life is cruel.  What business do you have talking about improving conditions to an ideal state.  How dense do you have to be to think that any such state is even attainable?  The nature of man doesn’t allow for such things.”

I, like most of us, can sympathize with the negativity leveled against the utopians.  But the real issue I’m discussing here is that any such critique is equivalent to chasing shadows in a dark room, devoid of light.  Because utopia, as an ideal, does not exist anymore–utopians do not exist anymore.  There are individuals who wish to improve matters in society, who want to challenge authority, but nowhere can you find someone defending the feasibility of creating a real-life utopia.  Our ambitions have been humbled to reject such grand visions.  Reality forbids us from even entertaining such fanciful projects.

We have cast our ballots, and the verdict is in.  The ideal of utopia is too infantile for our sophisticated sentiments, and mutual contention will be our new ideal, adequacy our new state.

John Locke’s Call for the Dissolution of Bad Government, Through Strictly Lawful Means

Part One: Analysis

John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”, in his Two Treatises of Government, makes a clear point that the people of a commonwealth grant authority to their governing body, and thereby have an inherent right to bring about the dissolution of that body, if it violates the principles upon which it was initially established.  But Locke goes further than to simply condone the overthrow of a bad government.  He examines and rationalizes the tenets and limits to authority of government; what sort of situations would constitute a government that has overstepped the authority designated to it.  And concludes how it is by peaceful, legislative means that the people who constitute the society being governed can dissolve the governing body, which has become alien to their will and interests.

Locke’s view of governing authority is that it should serve the will of the people that make up the commonwealth, because they are the ones who grant legislative authority in exchange for security and protection.  This is stated in Chapter 9, paragraph 131, “And so whosoever has the legislative or supreme power of a commonwealth, is bound to govern by establishing standing laws, promulgated and known to the people / to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.”  Furthermore, since legislative authority ultimately resides with the will of the people, the dissolution of such authority is subsequently reserved by the people as well.

Locke makes a distinction though between the dissolution of government and dissolution of society (TT.II.211).  In regard to the dissolution of society, the union can only be disrupted through the conquest of a foreign force, thus if a government is dissolved, the society it governs can continue to exist and authorize a new legislature.  The dissolution of the government is different however, in that the legislative powers, who have been granted authority to make laws for the good of the people, are themselves subject to the laws they have made (TT.II.143).  Since the governing body is dependent on the people’s will, it can only function as long as the commonwealth of people sees fit to maintain it.  If the actions of the government are counter to the will, or good, of the people, then it is also counter to the laws by which it itself is bound, and thus can be dissolved by the society that has empowered it, because it no longer upholds the interest of the commonwealth (TT.II.202).

On the issue of altering legislation, Locke equates the act similarly to a foreign conquest, which in itself is, “as far from setting up any government, as demolishing a house is from building a new one in the place” (TT.II.175).  And generally dismisses belligerent disobedience against the laws of government, either by ruler or subject, as vile and criminally despicable (TT.II.230).  As far as Locke is concerned the only legitimate law is one that derives from the consent of the people; if a law does not derive from, or stands in opposition to, the original framework consented by the people of the commonwealth, it is a breach in contract and the authority bestowed upon the guilty party is automatically invalid:

By this breach of trust they forfeit the power, the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provided for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society (TT.II.222).

The function of the government is to serve as a representative to the interest of the commonwealth.  If the government chooses to behave in a self-serving arbitrary manner, neglecting the good of the people, it is breaking the principles upon which it was founded.  The people have a fundamental right to oppose any force that is contrary and harmful to the principles that they have agreed to build their commonwealth on, and if that force happens to be reflected in the actions of their current government, then the government can be opposed by its subjects since that government has ceased to be their government.  Although, this might seem like a defense for revolutionaries, Locke also notes how this revelation does not invite the incessant dissolution of one government for another, because, “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest” (TT.II.223).  He uses Britain as an example, where even through countless government scandals, administrative corruptions, and calls for revolution, the monarchial system of king, lords, commons, has yet to be replaced.

How then can a people, by Locke’s doctrine, rebel against a government that no longer serves their interest?  Not by force, because, as already stated, a violent strike against an existing legislature will produce effects similarly to foreign conquest (TT.II.218).  That is to say, the resulting structure will be rendered as invalid on the grounds that whatever new institution is erected in place of the old is not compatible with the original foundation consented to by the commonwealth.  In truth, Locke views this doctrine, where power is authorized by the people who alone hold the right to dissolve a legislature that is not protecting their property and providing their safety, or is acting in any way contrary to their trust, as the ultimate barrier against rebellion (TT.II.226).  If the people see fit to dissolve the government, because the legislators have altered laws that have been agreed upon by the people, it is the legislators who are the dissenters by rebelling against the government that has been authorized by the people, who alone are the authority on what is to be their society’s ways of governance:

When they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties, shall by force invade, and endeavor to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those, who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes rebels (TT.II.227).

The people do not need to rebel, because once the actions of the government no longer represent the will of the commonwealth, the people who make up the commonwealth have no obligation to remain subjects of what has now become a de facto foreign power to them.  And if violence does occur when a people consciously rise against a corrupt legislature, the fault cannot lie with the honest man who is trying to preserve his rights and the rights on which his society was formed, but will always fall on the conscience of the invading force, invading his rights and the rights of his neighbors (TT.II.228).

John Locke’s treatise is a proclamation for majority governance, where ruling authority rests with the commonwealth, the people, who have the rights to determine what is best for their society.  As it is their right to establish, for their own good, whichever sort of government they see fit; it is also inherit in their authority to be able to dissolve an existing legislature, when it no longer serves their good, as they are not obligated to be subjects of a government whose priorities are not representative of their own.

Part Two: Critique

As already mentioned, Locke pronounces that the people of the commonwealth grant authority to the legislature and thereby reserve the right to determine whether or not it is legitimate, and if deemed illegitimate by the commonwealth, the governing body relinquishes its legislative powers back to the people who can then install a new sovereign to represent their interests.  All of this sounds sensible, but Locke also mentions that, “acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate” (TT.II.149).  This seems to be an implicit contradiction to his appeal for majority governance, in which it is the people who are the sovereigns of the land, and the legislative is an institution through which they protect and preserve their rights.  Locke goes on to say, reconcilably, that, “the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust repose them” (TT.II.149).  This statement appears to have been made by Locke in order to smooth out the discrepancy of his earlier statement and keep his proposed form of government consistent with democratic theory, but despite this attempt the sentence is still a non sequitur.

If Locke wants to identify the legislative body as the supreme power in the commonwealth, then its authority cannot be limited by the people of the commonwealth, because once a power is limited then by definition it is no longer supreme.  Perhaps, Locke meant that the people authorize the legislative with supreme power to institute laws favorable to the general good of the commonwealth, while the commonwealth still retains a certain trait of supreme power giving it the ability to pass judgment over the governing body: a separation of powers.  However, this is still unsatisfactory and only works if one is willing to be charitable to Locke, who did not bother to define his reasoning or assessment of how or why both the people and the legislator can hold supreme power in the commonwealth and in certain passages seems to refute any such claim:

In all cases, whilst the government subsists, the legislative is the supreme power.  For what can give laws to another, must needs be superior to him: and since the legislative is no otherwise legislative of the society, but by the right it has to make laws for all the parts and for every member of the society / and all other powers in any members or parts of the society, derived from and subordinate to it (TT.II.150).

Even if we are charitable towards Locke in this one statement, the fact still remains that the rest of his treatise treats the legislative authority as subordinate to the will of the commonwealth, which is composed of the interests of the people.  His occasional divergence from this point, rather than strengthening his argument, renders it moot.

This also causes a fundamental problem to arise when one looks at Locke’s views on how the people retain a basic right to dissolve the government that they have authorized to begin with.  When you have the ability to depose of an entity, then you do in fact hold some sort of dominion over that entity, making it subordinate to you.  A point Locke himself might reject according to the above quote, but a Lockean would have to accept if he or she follows Locke’s reasoning throughout the treatise.

Locke explicitly states that when a government is destroyed the commonwealth remains in full form (TT.II.211), meaning that supreme power cannot be equally shared between the two (separate or otherwise); for if the roles were balanced, then it would also be true that the government can theoretically dissolve the people just as readily as the people can dissolve the government.  But this is not true, because the people hold ultimate authority on how the government behaves/exists.  The relationship between the two is one in which the legislative body cannot act on its own will (such as deciding to destroy the commonwealth), because that will is dependent on the will of the people, going so far as to be composed solely of the will of the people (TT.II.142).

Locke creates a similar problem when he mentions that the legislative is what combines the commonwealth into one coherent living body, “This is the soul that gives form, life, and unity to the commonwealth: from hence the several members have their mutual influence, sympathy, and connection: and therefore when the legislative is broken, or dissolved, dissolution and death follow” (TT.II.212).  Here, it is implied that as the product of the society’s communal interest, the legislative is the representation (or soul, if one was keen on a more metaphorical prose) of the society’s will.  It is the uniting agent by which the commonwealth expresses its founding principles, operating as a physical embodiment to exercise the people’s collective will, and were it destroyed the resulting conclusion would be the removal of the commonwealths ability to physically exercise that will.

To Locke’s political theory of majority governance, this is disastrous, and the Lockean responds would be swift to counter the reasoning with the following:  First, one could argue that the statement made was Locke’s way of assessing all possible scenarios of the dissolution of government.  Rather than conceding that the destruction of the legislative body leaves the commonwealth without the ability to exercise their will, Locke was applying deductive reasoning to the situation.  This is supported by how in subsequent paragraphs Locke truly does explore varies alternative forms of existing and dissolving governments, the possible approaches that can be taken when they are no longer in line with the people’s will, and what results from each possible approach.  The second defense would be that since Locke ultimately concludes that, “the people have a right to act supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves, or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good” (TT.II.243).  Thereby, the will of the commonwealth is not entirely tied in with the existence of legislative and the intermediary scenarios are irrelevant to Locke’s ability to reach his wanted outcome; the defense of majority governance.  Now, as fervent as such defenses may be, they do little but try to redirect from the issue at hand.  If it can be supposed that as the representative entity of the commonwealth’s will, the legislative is a needed component in order for that will to be organized in a coherent way, then it goes to show that Locke’s insistence on the readily manner by which the commonwealth can dissolve a governing body is not universally applicable in theory or practice.

The Lockean dismissal of the major faults with Locke’s theory as irrelevant due to its focus on the semantics of Locke’s premises, rather than his conclusions, reveals a great deal about the flaws of John Locke’s argument as a whole.  It is in the ways a philosopher constructs his argument that deems it coherent or not.  Locke’s final conclusion in the Two Treatise of Government, of a governing body that is authorized by the people for its own interest and protection, and who retain the right to judge, mediate, and dissolve said legislative once it no longer serves the will of the people, is an idea that resonance favorably with the masses; not to mention an idea that was quite radical in Locke’s time of monarchial governance.  Nevertheless, as shown here, the manner by which Locke constructs his premises is far from consistent, and nowhere near as articulate as he indeed could have made it.  He sets out to defend the core part of his theory, the need for a limited government preceded in authority by the will of the people of the commonwealth, and fails by breaking from this premise and designating both parties (government and commonwealth) separate but equally supreme in authority (actually maintaining that it is the legislative that is the supreme power, though somehow still limited in authority).  Only to falter again by concluding that it is really the legislative that is dependent on the will of the commonwealth after all, despite stating that this will is correlated to the existence of the legislative.

Bibliography

Locke, John.  1993.  “Second Treatise of Government,” Two Treatises of Government, ed. Mark Goldie.  Churchill College, Cambridge:  Everyman.

The Need to Resist Institutionalized Fear

Fear is an involuntary reaction to a specific situation, and can often be an indispensable survival mechanism to an organism.  Even if the fear itself yields an irrational response, such as being afraid of heights when standing only two feet above the ground, the fact remains that being afraid of heights (in general) is not an unreasonable mindset to hold (seeing as how the avoidance of great heights altogether will also reduce the occurrence of great falls, and the possible injury or death that may result from them).  The nature of these sort of fears are perfectly sensible when reduced to their core impulses; however, our tendency to allow for our fears to be overgeneralized to more situations than can be rationally justified, is anything but.

The strive for safety is a consequent in the greater pursuit of peace of mind; a goal that is largely unattainable in a modern society, due to the sheer number of unknowns (whether people or places) most of us are forced to interact with to make a living.  As an example, in the course of the past 1,825 days (that’s five years total), I have been mugged walking home in my neighborhood twice.  Now, 2 days of life-threatening fear (of which only a few moments in either of those days are even relevant in this discussion) compared to 1,823 days of mostly undisturbed solace (at least as far as not being robbed at gunpoint goes) is a danger-ratio that should be called too statistically negligible to even warrant a concern.  Knowing this does absolutely nothing to ease my mind when it comes to taking the extra precautions to reduce the chance of such an event happening for a third time.  The reason for this is that we–as a people and as a society–are much more likely to shape our lives around our bad experiences than the good ones, because the bad experiences hold more risk to harm the delicate nature of the personal ecosystems we nurture around ourselves.  And the primary goal of each person’s instinct in this topic is to keep the conditions of her/his ecosystems as controlled and predictable as comfort allows.

On an individual level, this is an understandable development, and as I said before can serve to inform and protect a person when dealing with any future dangers that might come up in her/his life.  However, when dealing on a broader societal scope, our collective sensitivity to (more often than not) respond to dire events with impulsive fear creates something more dangerous than personal panic or an awareness for greater precaution–it creates an unwarranted paranoia, where patterns are concocted to explain a relatively rare phenomenon as compensation for our collected feeling of helplessness in averting a tragic situation.

Very, very bad things happen; very, very bad things will continue to happen; a decent probability exists that very, very bad things will occasionally happen to you.  Yet, a higher likelihood exists that, if you live in the industrial world, the vast majority of your life will not consist of such bad experiences (more than likely, your life be mostly made up of danger-neutral events).  And an even higher likelihood exists that you will ignore this simple fact whenever the next attack, disaster, tragedy, or chaotic event makes the national news.  Moreover, an even, even higher likelihood exists that you will misconstrue my words here as an indefensible call for irresponsible inaction in the face of danger, rather than a warning not to allow institutionalized fear to dictate the means by which we evaluate the world and the people around us.

The reason I care about this topic is that fear–socially appropriated fear touted out as a response to a heinous/disastrous event–is the default tactic used by authorities to endear themselves to a person’s desire for safety to cement their own political interests, while effectively silencing any reasonable opposition or nuance that may be raised to question the merit of these interests.

Fear is the means by which we assess the observable threat in our surroundings to help us avoid suffering and/or death.  Despite the fact that the existence of fear (as a bodily/psychological response) appears to be largely innate, it is also undeniable that many of the specific fears of particular things we have are learned through experience in our interactions with the external world.  My position is that in our pursuit for greater safety, for us as individuals, as well as society at large–especially in the face of tragic events–we don’t make the mistake of adopting fear as the guiding principle from which we argue for social and personal improvement.  Instead, I’d argue that sincere introspection and critical self (and social) scrutiny would make for a more productive means by which to deal with the more frightening facets of social life, and never to forget how, despite their hold on our consciousness, these facets are far almost always less prominent and less absolute than our fears would have us believe.  But that’s just my two cents.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451& the People’s Tyranny

Like the dystopian novels that precede it (i.e. 1984Brave New World, etc.), Ray Bradbury’s 1953 Fahrenheit 451 is set in an ambiguously dated future, where human society has become subjugated by an undisclosed oppressive force.  The book depicts a future whose technological feats have advanced to a high enough pace that it allows the common citizenry to live in relative comfort and bliss–televisions are bigger and brighter, drugs and antidepressants are easily available to ease whatever malady a person may be feeling.  But, despite all of these luxuries, the outwardly happiness feels empty and artificial; something is missing from the humane experience.  Guy Montag is aware of this void in his life, but is initially unable to determine its source.  His occupation as a fireman provides the reader the vital insight necessary to explain the destitute state of the novel’s environment.  Because houses (and presumably other structures, too) are designed to be completely fireproof, the duty of the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 is strikingly different from what we normally expect it to be; namely, they start–as opposed to prevent–fires.  Moreover, firemen serve to specifically find and burn books (the forbidden contraband in the novel), due to the items having been banned in the distant past.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that the message the author is trying to convey is the importance of imagination and creativity (i.e. literature) in making mankind feel wholly human.  Thus, the book’s protagonist, Montag, represents the isolated figure in society, who is being deprived of something he requires to truly function and understand the world around him properly (in this case, that something is the rigor and critical thinking invoked by the at times inspiring, at times agonizing, words of literature).  Although this theme of being unable to live a fulfilling life absent of books and substantive prose is an interesting concept to explore, the part that really makes the novel stand out from others in its genre is the way the author chooses to detail the genesis of the decadent state his characters are living in.

Early on, the narrative vaguely implies that the source of the repression of books in Montag’s society is some sort of governmental power, as seen by the comment his superior, Captain Beatty, makes about the state of mind of any person that sees fit to challenge the ban in place, “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us” (page 33).  The mention of the “government” seems to indicate that the oppressor is the standard Big Brother type, ruling decrees from above.  However, as the story progresses, the reader quickly finds out that this initial assumption, though reasonable, is completely false in light of the reality of things.

Montag’s anxiety about his life and work eventually causes him to start to explore the written words in the books he has up to that point ignited for a living.  It is suggested that Captain Beatty is fully aware of Montag’s illegal activities, leading to a revealing exchange between the two, which sets the tone for the narrative from there on out, and sets Fahrenheit 451 apart from its dystopian precursors.

The exchange begins with Beatty openly telling Montag about the origins of the nationwide ban on books:

“Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.  The world was roomy.  But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.  Double, triple, quadruple population.  Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm / Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion.  Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera.  Books cut shorter.  Condensations.  Digests.  Tabloids.  Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending” (page 54).

What Beatty is essentially describing is the advent of the modern life.  As technology has become faster, and our dependency on technology has forced us to adapt our pace right along with it (i.e. our attention spans have decreased significantly).  Readers in the 21st Century will have no problem understanding this, as we trace the impact technological feats like the internet have had on the way we communicate, retain, and process information.  [What makes the parallel even more interesting is the fact that Bradbury wrote his book in 1953, with little knowledge of just how much more tech-dependent we were to become in the subsequent decades.]  Beatty goes on to explain how this change in technology influenced the way society prioritized itself:

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophy, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.  Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.  Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (page 56).

The focus on simply learning the menial tasks one needs to get by in a job takes away the individual’s burden to challenge, or even contemplate, her/his surroundings with any real depth; one does what one knows, because no one is taught to do anything more.  Of course, this routine also leaves people with a certain amount of leisure time, which must be filled with enough distractions, lest someone gets tempted to analyze the surrounding world too seriously.  And this is where luxuries come into play–to keep people content, happy, and too comfortable to start upsetting the balancing for everybody else:

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred.  Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all?  People want to be happy, isn’t that right?  Haven’t you heard it all your life?  I want to be happy, people say.  Well, aren’t they?  Don’t we keep moving them moving, don’t we give them fun?  That’s all we live for, isn’t it?  For pleasure, for titillation?  And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these” (page 59).

The source of the censorship in Montag’s world is not some ominous government figure or organization, it is the people themselves who urged for the ban.  As information became readily available to a growing population, the opportunity for offense increased, and the prevalence of offensiveness leads to a decrease in happiness (which can have detrimental affects on the governing order).  Books are a cesspool of offensiveness.  While the right book–with the right message–can inspire a person to great things, no book’s primary goal is to keep peace amongst differing ideas.  Books challenge the person, ridicule his beliefs and convictions, and in turn make him less peaceful.  Or as Beatty puts it, “The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!  All the minor minor minorities with their navel to be kept clean” (page 57).  In a pluralistic society, the desire not to offend is very prominent.  But in a free marketplace of ideas the act is practically unavoidable (that which is inspirational and uplifting for one, is insulting to another).

The simple truth is that some ideas are better than others; and some positions are less viably defensible.  However, the means by which we determine which is which, is to debate and challenge one another in the public place of ideas.  But to challenge is to confront, to confront is to antagonize, and it takes little effort for antagonizing to lead to warring.  To fully remove the agitation ideas cause, it is best to remove the incentive for them altogether–make each man “the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are mo mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against” (page 58).  Yet, even characters like Beatty understand that the artistic spirit of the human mind is naturally drawn to formulating ideas (even if it is often just a recycling of other people’s ideas), thus he explains the prominence of feeding mundane trivia facts to the populace (that offer no opportunity for controversy or critical thought):

“Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘fact’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information.  Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving” (page 61).

[I feel the need to add as a side note that, while I can appreciate Bradbury’s appeal for the need books provide in creating minds that can evaluate the world critically, it should also be mentioned that simply reading works of literature, and than regurgitating trivial quotes back to others as your own is not the standard of a critical thinker; more than read, one must learn to dissect and scrutinize the words of books.]

The reason why I consider Fahrenheity 451 as separate from books like Orwell’s 1984, is the fact that it challenges the popular notion that oppression always stems from the ruling class’s thirst for power.  The will of the people can be equally tyrannical, and when convinced enough of its own sanctity, it won’t hesitate to impose its will on those who dare deviate from the established program.  The common man is not necessarily the noble spirit of humanity, but the oppressor looking to subjugate others for the sake of keeping himself content:

“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” (page 58).

Once public opinion submits to its desire to be censored and guarded and watched over, it doesn’t take much for opportunistic would-be rulers to step in and erode away at the individual’s liberties to consolidate their own power.  But one should not forget who sanctions their authority to begin with, and laid the foundation for the systematic coercion that follows.  In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury makes it clear who he considers “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.  Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority” (page 108).  The question that remains now is, how readily can oppression be recognized (let alone combated) if it is being sustained from the bottom-up?

Bibliography

Bradbury, Ray.  Fahrenheit 451.  Ballantine Books:  New York, 1953 (1996 reprint).

The Intellectual Laziness of Appealing to Hypocrisy, Sans Argument

To point out a person’s failure to live up to the standards s/he advocates for everybody else is often the go-to retort of anyone looking to counter the nonsense of said person’s particularly insufferable opinions.  The implied reasoning being that if someone is proven a hypocrite on an issue, the substance of their position must also be equally dishonorable by association.  For example, let’s consider a person arguing the point that individuals who have premarital sex are perpetuating a harmful societal norm [a position which, for the record, I happen to personally disagree with].  Let us also further consider that this hypothetical person also happens to be someone who has undoubtedly had premarital sex before (confirmed either through testimonies of past lovers, or the existence of an out of wedlock child, or any other such inarguable proof).  The first instinct for many of us who happen to hold the opposing view on the topic is to point out the blatant hypocrisy of the person in question.

“How on earth can you judge the behavior of others for falling to follow a standard you can’t even abide by yourself?”

“Haven’t you ever heard how people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones?”

“Maybe you should learn to practice what you preach before stating your ideas to others.”

And, generally speaking, none of the above remarks are incorrect, as they pertain to the hypocrisy of the individual advocating the position in question.  However, they are completely immaterial to the merits of the position itself.  If right after lecturing to me about the dangers of smoking, my doctor lit up a cigarette, my correct announcement of his hypocrisy in this situation does nothing to negate the veracity of the stated claim (i.e. smoking is still unhealthy whether stated by a smoking or nonsmoking doctor).  The same would be true for the hypothetical topic and its advocate I conjured up above.

The problem I see is that, while it is a perfectly legitimate move to point out someone’s personal hypocrisy on a matter, all too often I see such a proclamation of hypocrisy serving as a crutch to avoid having to address the content of a proposed claim.  So much so, that many of us seem to immediately search out possible hypocrisy in a person’s character (even when there exists little to no reason to suspect the presence of any such personal failing), simply because s/he proposed as viewpoint we disagree with or dislike. As I already said, I happen to disagree with the position that premarital sex is a harm to society.  It is irrelevant whether I’m arguing with the most sexually promiscuous person on the planet, or a chaste nun, absent of any persuasive argument my stance will still be the same.  Therefore, it would be beyond unreasonable for me to focus the crux of my counterargument on how hypocritical the person I’m arguing with is in terms of her/his adherence to the proposed position, when its completely inconsequential to the underlying reasons for why I’m convinced in the correctness of my own position on the issue.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that I wouldn’t point out someone’s hypocrisy on a subject; I would, and I do (just as I would expect someone not to hesitate to point out my own hypocrisy if its out on obvious display for all to see).  But I take issue when people confuse refuting an argument with the prospect of discrediting the messenger of said argument.  It isn’t that hard to do the latter, but the first usually requires a bit more critical examination (depending on the topic in question, of course).

I recognize that choosing the example of premarital sex to illustrate my point here about hypocrisy is largely a softball option on my part.  In the Western world, the majority of people nowadays see the practice as a norm, where even most of those who choose not to engage in sexual activities prior to marriage (or at all) don’t go around arguing about its wickedness.  But the greater point about how, if one decides to seriously address a proposed claim–and wants her/his contribution to the discussion to be seen as a serious point on the subject matter–concentrating on the personal failings of the opposing side’s advocate should not be acceptable as a valid form of reasoning on the part of the challenger.  Yes, by virtue of their own claimed standards, the people you are arguing with are hypocrites; now, if you want to sway me to your side, explain to me why their viewpoint would be wrong even if they weren’t.

Lastly–keeping in spirit with the general discussion–if in the future I myself fail to abide by the standard I have proposed here (and anywhere else on this blog), readers are more than welcome to point out my shameful hypocrisy on the matter, and than proceed to actually argue against the merits of my position(s).  Fair enough?–I think so.