Fahrenheit 451 is arguably Ray Bradbury’s finest piece. It is also one of those dystopian books (alongside Brave New World and 1984) that are said to have predicted the future “accurately.” While this book, written in 1953, does not predict current events with exactitude, it eerily captures important aspects of American culture today, as some critics are quick to point out. The book’s events center on the life of its protagonist, Montag, and his conflict with his environment where censorship is the norm and government control is total.
The novel’s biggest “prediction” is likely to revolve around technology and distraction. Montag’s society is one where technology has become advanced and fully integrated with life. This boon has afforded them many things, such as the resulting abundance of information and entertainment. It is a culture where big TV screens are mounted on nearly every wall of every house, and where Reality programming starring the “family” is all the rage. It is also a society where people are constantly bombarded by ads, entertainment, and loud music, and the one where space is shrunken due to advances in transportation and communication technologies.
If this sounds familiar, it should, as this mirrors America’s current cultural landscapes of technology, media, and popular culture. Our technology has afforded us more ability to communicate with each other and to discover other cultures to gain understanding, but this has not necessarily resulted in a more connected society among us. On the contrary, distance between people has grown exponentially, if only because advancements in technology also brought about a culture of distraction.
This is typified by today’s very prominent “screen culture,” where the access to entertainment on demand and the availability of technology encourage people to distract themselves away from the harshness of reality and the messy realm of politics toward temporary happiness provided by the media. This, of course, mirrors the social and technological landscape of the novel, where parlor walls and seashells feed people with information and entertainment 24/7. Here, Millie Montag plays the significant role of a primary archetype of Montag’s distracted culture. Guy describes her consistently as someone alive, but not truly living, day-in and day-out consumed by the “family”, music, and radio talk shows:
His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind… Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time. (Bradbury 42)
Pointing out this culture of distraction is important in painting a significant theme of the movie, censorship. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, government censorship had become the norm; firefighters like Montag regularly burn copies of books found in the possession of the populace. As such, the government facilitates for their routine book-burning sessions, and the state control has elevated to such a degree that it can look up and utilize people’s personal information, have government propaganda permeate media programming and the educational system, and even dictate the standards of happiness and well-being.
At first glance, the government of the novel closely resembles the totalitarian governments of North Korea and even Big Brother’s regime in 1984. The novel does not go into full detail on why or how this came to be in this society. However, it does provide one important clue regarding the rise of its modern milieu, as recounted by Captain Beatty:
Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico… The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did… Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater… 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. (Bradbury 57)
Here, Beatty describes the technologically-driven rise of a mass culture that overemphasized minority voices, which further evolved into a super PC culture that ultimately silenced all criticism altogether in that society. Once the state took the mantle of a national peacekeeper and deliberator over social issues and concerns, all social issues became strictly legal issues all at once. Beatty was eager to point out that the pressure that would culminate to this change did not come from the government down, but from the community upwards; there are no Big Brothers in the novel, no sly government to pin the blame on. The big government actively censoring its population in Fahrenheit 451 is a result of that society’s own cultural decisions and policies. In other words, it came about purely from democratic process, yet perverted.
Faber describes the events in the novel as an example of “the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom… the terrible tyranny of the majority” (Bradbury 136). Here, he points to a society that has embraced diversity in cultures and sub-cultures as a chief value—hinted at by the mention of minorities—but has failed to preserve diversity in thought. The result is a society diverse in interests and tastes, but monolithic in philosophy. Faber’s “majority” evolved into a tyrannical body-politic that sees dissent and argument as enemies of peace, not components of liberty. Books are the primary enemy of this society because they represented rival viewpoints and philosophies that go against the norms and values held by that society. Books were burned because they offended too many people.
The development of this mass culture was the first step to the novel’s totalitarian government, and distraction was a key mechanism to this evolution. The abundance of information and entertainment have successfully kept the people occupied and distracted enough to not think at all about society or politics, while the government kept gaining more control even as the population sought it to interfere with their affairs for peacekeeping. Because they are distracted, people are given no room for self-reflection or careful thought. Because they are distracted, they easily forget history and only remember the priorities of the present. When the old priorities of liberty and truth are forgotten to give way to the present priorities of diversity and political correctness, the result is a government like Fahrenheit 451’s. Like Beatty says, the government did not need to use force to control the people; it only needed to give them what they want.
Even if it is not exactly explained in the novel, the trend leading to an emphasis in minority voices in the novel is not beyond our imagination. After all, we see this same trend in the American society today. The prominence of discussions on racism, sexism, homophobes, and bigotry in general all allude to the newfound centrality of majority-minority discussions in our country. Although these issues are of extreme importance, it is worrying how modern expectations mimic the sentiments of Beatty in the novel: “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” (Bradbury 58). Being “social” is the novel’s equivalent of modern society’s political correctness, and in both scenarios, everyone is expected to be politically correct/social.
Today, political correctness is advertised as the only correct method to solve the ever-real problems of society, and all it amounts to at the end of the day is to avoid offending people by avoiding triggering somebody and abstaining from acts of micro-aggression. This attitude is everywhere in society, even in the Academe—which yet again mirrors the Academe of the novel—so much so that critics have described intersectionality as “a smelly little orthodoxy that manifests itself almost as a religion” (Warner). Day without a Woman and Black Lives Matter protests all around the country also mirror the degree by which intersectionality has become the social norm, and the dangerous part about this is how voices that disagree with their ideology are either shouted down, or as the recent Pro-Trump rally demonstrates, are met with violence (Wang).
The society of Fahrenheit 451 is where everybody who disagrees with the social standards for living and happiness is a heretic. Mimicking the history of orthodox religions, it is a place where heretical books are not read but burned. However, the novel reminds us that dissent and argument are important to the preservation of any free society. Faber notes how “the books are to remind us what asses and fool we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, “Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal” (Bradbury 114). Books are a testament to human fallibility; they remind us that there are multiple sides to one issue, and that no one solution can solve all the world’s problems.
While bigotry is certainly dangerous, and we all must try to live with each other without hurting one another in this diverse society, we must take caution in preserving diversity in thought, and not to make offense and political correctness the sole bases for creating policy. Above all, it is important that we remember the past and all the lessons we have learned from it as a nation, even amid this culture of distraction. We must not be quick to forget, as the characters in the novel seem to have done, that censoring our neighbors is not the way to change their minds, but to dialogue with them, patiently and seriously until they see come to see the light—even when their views depart from the norm; even when you disagree with them.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451: A Novel. Simon & Schuster, 1951.
Wang, Amy B. “Pro-Trump Rally in Berkely Turns Violent as Protesters Clash with the President’s Supporters.” The Washington Post, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/03/05/pro-trump-rally-in-berkeley-turns-violent-as-protesters-clash-with-the-presidents-supporters/?utm_term=.931172610b5f. Accessed 11 March 2021.
Warner, John. “On Political Correctness as the New Campus Religion.” Inside Higher Ed, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/political-correctness-new-campus-religion. Accessed 11 March 2021.