I just finished re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the second time. Last time I read it, I was probably barely 12 and didn’t understand much of the author’s message. Furthermore, I probably didn’t have enough context or experience in life to be sufficiently enlightened or extract greater understanding. However, this time around, I was able to read the novel with my wife and discuss the themes and message with her. In addition, since my first read, I’ve experienced a bit more and developed more of an opinion about the world in general and some of the trends of the times. I wish to make some commentary on those trends. I perceive I may be walking on thin ice, thus I emphasize that this is my humble, simple opinion. My intention is not to offend or debase anyone.
But before I give my opinion, allow me to quote the author’s own words. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury gives some final thoughts on the message implied in a separate section entitled “Coda”:
About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.
But she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?
A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?
Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.
Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader.
In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the view-point of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”
The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.”
How did I react to all of the above?
By “firing” the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.
By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book [emphasis added]. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blancmange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever [emphasis added].
I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premieres as an opera in Paris this autumn. But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared to do my play–it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried!
Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). Or, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan, or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conservationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type-writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter they mush milk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.
For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer–he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings variety and forbids the appetite to fall.
In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.
All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset, I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.
And no one can help me. Not even you.
–Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. “Coda.” 1979.
Getting to My Point: An Opinion
I believe Ray Bradbury’s point is quite clear. We should not censor the words, opinions or perceptions of others. We are all entitled, or should be entitled, to voice our interpretation of a matter. And let me add, we should be able to do so without being persecuted. I can respect and admire an appropriate rebuttal or disagreement. But minority or not, we should not think ourselves so disadvantaged or disgraced by the words of another that it is our duty to retort contemptuously. Furthermore, to get offended at the opinion of another is to validate that very opinion and, thus, is senseless altogether. “A man’s a fool who takes an insult that isn’t intended.”
Ray limits his argument to printed press. However, here I extrapolate to any word and emphasize spoken word. It seems to me in today’s world we have to tread carefully and lightly with our words. We cannot walk about giving our opinion freely–especially about matters of race, gender or sexual orientation–without anticipating an assault from of an enraged group of offended individuals. “Don’t talk about religion, politics or [name your sport],” I’ve heard people say. Shall we make that list three fold longer now? Surely we can control our tempers and appreciate an opinion or expressed point of view even if we don’t agree?
Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating the abuse or disenfranchisement of any group of people or of any right. I am not defending prejudice in any of its dastardly forms, be it racism, sexism or the like. In fact, I decry censorship and prejudice.
Before moving forward, may I also say that discrimination, in its very essence, is not necessarily prejudice or inherently bad, and yet some form of prejudice often comes to mind when we talk about discriminating, notably racial discrimination. Discrimination can be defined as simply discerning between two more things. ‘Discriminating against’ is different from ‘discriminating,’ ‘discriminating between’ or ‘discriminating among’.
There is very often a time and a place and an audience for certain words and topics. Let us use discretion and wisdom in when and where. However, we should not be afraid to speak up, to voice our opinions. We should not have to expect to receive a barrage of angry and sometimes foul words from any opposing party, nor should we be such reciprocators. We can expect, if circumstance permits, a challenge to our views. And should we venture to express ourselves ever so passionately, may it be tasteful, respectful and mindful of others.
Some may think that my convictions are unique to the color of my skin or my favorite sports team, my religious background or my sex, my preferred political candidate or some other affiliation. Though they discriminate on these grounds, which is no crime, I echo the same convictions of those who identify with different races, teams, religions, genders, political parties and philosophies in general. Ray Bradbury being one. Dr. Benjamin Carson being another.
Do not censor me in my opinions. Do not censor my freedom of expression. Is not book burning bad enough? Is it really necessary to try and hush or alter every word and opinion that is not in accordance with our own?
Alas, perhaps the nefarious success of censorship on behalf of those who feel insulted and diminished will continue. I would encourage a different approach. Instead, stand up for your beliefs in a civil and dignified matter when appropriate. Do not proclaim tolerance with an intolerant disposition.
There it is. My opinion. It may change or be refined. I may have left out a few things. It may be misunderstood. It may be–and naturally most likely is–biased.
I welcome thought provoking comments; insightful, not inciteful.