Censorship – touted by governments around the world as the protection of citizens against inappropriate materials and information. To some censorship is a dirty word, a concept to be discussed and derided because ultimately it is the powerful few who determine what information trickles through and what is filtered out. To others censorship is a fact of life, a rigid control to struggle against in an oppressive civil environment. Which side of the censorship fence you sit on once had a lot to do with where you grew up – someone born in Australia might not think censorship a very big deal. Someone from China might vehemently argue the opposite. Ultimately, censorship is present to some degree in every global society and today, censorship is in place in more ways than you could ever imagine.
According to Lexico.com censorship can be defined as the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security. Censorship is a tool used by governments to hide information from the general public through tactical control measures such as the censorship of media coverage, what information is made public. More subtle means are also used such the approval of which films will be released to cinemas our government discretely controls and influences what we know. Or rather what we are allowed to know. Background levels of information and media censorship may not seem harmful in the present, but one must consider the cumulative effect of generations worth of controlled information release and censorship. Collectively we need to think of the possible impact that past, present and future censorship could have on tomorrow’s society. Think rigid censorship is an impossibility? Nothing to worry about? Unforeseeable? You need only look back to 1930’s Germany in the lead up to the second world war. A time where all forms of mass communication such as music, film, newspaper, radio, and literature were heavily censored and the Nazi regime instead disseminated their information streams dedicated to pushing forward their flawed cause. However, you don’t just have to look to the past for prime examples of the dark side of censorship. Perhaps the most pertinent illustration of possible future censored societies comes from dystopian novels such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which has recently been adapted into a 10-part television series streamed on Hulu in 2017). Ironically both Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale have been banned in some schools in the United States because they were deemed anti-Christian or too vulgar for children to be reading.
The dystopian societies in these fictitious worlds have been silenced by those in positions of power through weaponised censorship. Their governments use rigid censorship to control citizens by outlawing reading and writing. Literature is banned. Information is altered and manipulated to keep common people in ignorance and cowering in submission. Fear, misinformation, and a corrupt education are the main tools in the arsenal of authoritarians doggedly seeking to maintain their absolute power.
Insidious Censorship is used in the societies of Fahrenheit 451 and Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale as a subtle “smoke and mirrors” tool for controlling people. This is achieved through the use of cheap entertainment like the Parlour Walls in Fahrenheit 451, or false information treated as fact in The Handmaid’s Tale. In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood shows how bible verses are used to manipulate the Handmaids so that they are reduced to nothing more than child-bearing vessels – just like the maid Bilhah is in the King James Bible, Genesis 30:1 -3: “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her”. Here, the verse has been used to justify that biblical figures forced maids to bear their children and represented it as “the norm” and the same should be accepted in Gilead without question. Censorship is one of the most important means used to bend these societies to the will of their regulators. These texts show that those in power don’t want people to become critical thinkers. They don’t want the public to debate or have their own opinions, as observed by Captain Beatty from Fahrenheit 451: ‘The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys… you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.’.
The governments of these societies don’t want their authority ripped away like an ugly mask, revealing the bare face of their true intent– to maintain absolute power at all costs. If people start to realise how dire their situation actually is – whether a constant state of war as in Fahrenheit 451 or an unknown disaster affecting fertility like in Gilead (The Handmaids Tale) then Governments would be overthrown and lose everything. The few would no longer control the many. One way that the governments of these societies keep the people uninformed and therefore maintain control is through the use of censorship. In the dystopian societies depicted by Bradbury and Atwood, it is clear that the vast majority of people under the control of their corrupt leaders are ignorant that they are being manipulated. This means that censorship of information is clearly working and is only further reinforcing the government’s view that to run a society without issues like conflict or rebellion they must never allow the truth to surface.
In the society of Fahrenheit 451, censorship was slowly introduced. From what Captain Beatty said to Guy Montag “There you have it, Montag. 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…” It can be interpreted that what Captain Beatty meant was this: People became shallow-minded and strayed away from reading, writing, and other hobbies.
They turned to the silver screens of the Parlour Walls in their houses spending hours a day watching mindless fast-paced entertainment. Society was slowly turned into a horde of mindless zombies and censorship was used to manipulate their carelessness and short attention spans as a control measure. Eventually, there weren’t many people who thought for themselves or took the time to look at their surroundings. It’s understandable then why Clarisse – a strange young girl that goes against the norms of Fahrenheit 451 society – was surprised when fireman Guy Montag (the main protagonist of the novel) tells her: ‘You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that.’ This quote is a dire reflection of the extreme measures inflicted on Fahrenheit 451’s society to keep them under control, to stop them thinking and questioning. it is to Clarisse’s credit that she was to some degree able to think and resist.
It’s also clear that censorship was forced upon the Handmaids of Gilead since the day the republic started. This is reflected in the Handmaids being assigned houses and commanders. Being forced to wear uniforms. Given the same name. Only able to speak in verses of the bible that they had been forced to learn. The Handmaids were slaves from the very start. The inflexibility of these rigid rules was another way the Handmaids were forced into being submissive to their commanders. Aunt Lydia states this to convince the enslaved women at the Red Centre that: ”Gilead is not wrong, only different, and something the Handmaids will have to get used to.”
In both the Republic of Gilead and Fahrenheit 451 access to literature has been banned. Handmaids are not allowed to write. The people of Fahrenheit 451 are too afraid or have no interest in writing anymore. Fear is a major factor that comes with the censorship of reading in both societies as the punishments are severe. Reading is punished by chopping off a finger (if you’re a Handmaid) or having your house burned down by Firemen if in possession of books in Fahrenheit 451. The reason that books are banned in these dystopian societies is that the Governments don’t want people to get ideas from books such as rebelling against what they have been told or trying to bring about leadership change. The government also banned books so that they are more easily able to manipulate the thoughts, ideas, and ability to communicate of those under their control. Either through the mindless messages being broadcast through televisions and radios in Fahrenheit 451 or the misinformation and education of handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale. As Faber said in Fahrenheit 451: ‘It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through radios and televisions but are not.’ Governments use censorship in both societies to manipulate large groups of people into submission through malicious punishments if somebody disobeys the law, such as being stoned to death in The Handmaid’s Tale or being chased down and killed by an emotionless mechanical hound in Fahrenheit 451.
Misinformation and altered history are other ways that the leaders in Fahrenheit 451 convince people this is how the world has always been. For example, the Firemen in Fahrenheit 451 are told that Benjamin Franklin was the first fireman to exist in their society and because it has been told to them for so long and the actual history of that event had been censored nobody questions the false statement. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the education of the Handmaids is falsified and brainwashes the Handmaids into believing that the way they are treated is normal and is the will of God. Handmaids are read passages from the bible that have been taken out of context and altered to benefit the leaders of the Republic of Gilead. Because the passages the handmaids are read come from the bible, the handmaids don’t question what is being told to them and believe this is the way they should act in the eyes of God when in fact they are being manipulated into being used for the benefit of the government.
Echoes of these same censorship situations can be found throughout actual modern history – such as the rise of the Nazi Regime mentioned earlier. Modern totalitarian censorship is not a work of fiction or even a stretch of the imagination -it is alive and well in the banning of Facebook and Google by the current Chinese government, who have also rewritten the history books to omit any reference to Tiananmen Square. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and Fahrenheit 451 are important fictional works with powerful messages about the dangers of censorship as a tool of oppression. As long as these works remain in circulation, they help to remind readers that a possible future dystopian society is just a heavy-handed government with a penchant for censorship away.
These works encourage free-thinking and awareness by highlighting exactly what could be taken away from us all. In perhaps an ultimate irony a very strong case presents itself to make these novels required reading on all school curriculums – not to tell the people what to think, but to show them an alternative that they do not want.