The 1932 science fiction novel A Brave New World portrays a dystopian future where history is rewritten and words are redefined in order to make undesirable ideas “unthinkable”. Some of the questions that must be asked are:
- Undesirable for who?
- How is the term undesirable defined?, and
- Who gets to define it?
What is the practical purpose of making “undesirable” ideas “unthinkable”?
(Will be multiple choice with several wrong answers.)
– – -All answers, in order (asterisk indicates correct)
*By reducing the chances of actual dissent by criminalizing the mere thought of dissent.
(Seen after the answer is selected.)
– – -Explanation
Making certain thoughts unthinkable is a form of coercion.
Coercion is not necessarily a bad thing. An example is stopping an arsonist from lighting a home on fire. Another example is a parent demanding a child clean their room, but presenting it as a limited choice: “Would you like to clean your room now or in thirty minutes?”
The problem is not the coercion itself, but in the honesty that there is coercion at all. What’s important is how the undesired option is dealt with*. (Undesired, importantly, by the more powerful party.) If the parent is open with the child that not cleaning their room is certainly an option, but one that comes with unpleasant consequences, then the coercion is overt and direct. In the case of a Brave New World (and in important ways, reality), the coercion is indirect.
(*Similarly, in journalism, bias is not a problem, undisclosed bias is a problem.)
An example raised by Professor Zaman comes from Noam Chomsky regarding the Vietnam War. The question at the time was whether the United States should invade Vietnam in order to “defend freedom”. “Hawks” said yes. “Doves” said no. What was assumed as true by both was that Vietnam was somehow “offending freedom”, and that the United States was somehow the arbiter of (defining and) defending it. Even less spoken was that perhaps the term “freedom” was used to disguise the true purpose of invasion, whether it be, for example, bloodlust, greed, or a simple desire for resources.
Making undesirable thoughts unthinkable is nothing more than an effort by the powerful to further decrease the chances of dissent by outlawing the mere thought of it – or by giving implicit permission to others to discriminate against those who dare think it. If a ruler was truly doing their best for the people, then the fear of being overthrown would be reduced, as would the need to thought police. (The 2002 film Minority Report is an excellent exploration of the idea of criminalizing thought.)
This is also reminiscent of how slave masters wanted to “prevent the sun from getting in” to the heads of their slaves. Slaves were banned from education, reading, and even owning books. Those who tried to provide these things were harshly punished. The ostensible reason given was that slaves are nothing more than animals who are simply incapable of learning. This is betrayed, however, by the severe response given when educating a slave was attempted. After all, if a slave is truly incapable of learning, then, aside from wasted time, what possible harm is there in trying? This topic of education and slavery is discussed in this 2019 Historic-ly podcast interview with historian and author Keith Errol Benson, on his book, The Power and the Glory: the Racial History of America and How to Fix It.