Whistle-blowing, book burning and critical thought
Fahrenheit 451 and Snowden pose the question: Is Ignorance Bliss?
In this ‘information age’, we never hear the end of ‘data-driven decision-making’ or the importance of ‘thinking laterally’.
But how often do we actually think critically?
How often do we challenge our habits, assumptions and prejudices or question the institutions that align with our own preconceptions?
I watched Snowden recently (I know, a little late for a 2016 film) and it made me question my own critical thought.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it follows the (dramatized) true-story of eponymous intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) career working for the CIA and NSA. As the Oliver Stone-directed biopic progresses, not only does Snowden’s view of patriotism develop from a blind faith in the government to a trust in the masses, but his growing critical thinking acts in juxtaposition to many he is surrounded by, highlighting the contrasting outcomes of critical thought and a lack thereof. Stone invites us to question the nature of critical thinking in our society and reflect upon the roles individuals and institutions play in facilitating it.
But Snowden’s messages are not new. While George Orwell’s 1984 popularized this ‘conversation’ in more modern times, one of my all-time favourites, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, provides a perspective I think is still (despite publication in 1953) relevant today.
These texts — Fahrenheit 451 and Snowden — unify in their representation of critical thought as exceedingly important yet often lost. They portray a contrast of people gaining and losing critical thought, inviting audiences to realize ignorance shouldn’t be bliss.
Let’s start with Snowden.
Early on, it’s revealed Snowden was indoctrinated into a thoughtless trust in the US government. Walking through an Iraq war protest with his soon-to-be girlfriend, Lindsay, Snowden is questioned why he won’t sign the petition. He responds: “I just don’t really like bashing my country” and is quick to accuse Lindsay of “lashing out” by questioning their government.
The stark contrast of her criticism with his blind patriotism — where she sees a “moron”, Snowden’s dogmatic eyes see a “commander-in-chief” — exemplifies Snowden’s thoughtless attitudes. Lindsay’s more persuasive arguments, appealing to the principles the US was founded upon, force us to distrust the patriotic idealism represented by Snowden, instead asking audiences to question their institutions.
Branded by a colleague as ‘Snow White’ for his naïve, yet corruptible, innocence, Snowden begins to see things differently. His development becomes apparent as we are introduced to Marwan, an innocent banker who is targeted by the CIA as a prospective informant.
When asked by a colleague to be complicit in the torturous manipulation of Marwan, Snowden attempts to stop it. Upon failure, he resigns from the CIA. Stone constructs a moral contrariety; Snowden stands up for the ‘little guy’, while his colleague is motivated by a promotion. We can’t help but respect Snowden’s choices. Stone also invites us to be appalled by any individual who would buy into these reprehensible institutional norms rather than take Snowden’s route of critical thought.
The friction of Snowden’s developing thought with his less critical co-workers is explored further when Snowden and some colleagues discuss the morally ‘grey’ aspects of their job. We see the lack of critical thought coming from a more sympathetic place — a desire to rationalise their actions.
In response to a confronting story about killing innocent families, Snowden’s boss Trevor justifies the violence with an age-old dogma: “It’s war. It’s a job.”
While we understand Trevor’s desire to legitimise their work with a sense of duty, Snowden’s reply — mentioning the Nuremberg trials — outlines the flaws in this approach, pointing out that working for the government doesn’t make you morally or legally invincible. Here we see Trevor entrenched in the narratives he accepts out of a desire for comfort while Snowden again exemplifies the critical thinker. The zooming close-up of Trevor’s face as his ideology is confronted, in contrast to Snowden’s owlish over-the-shoulder shot, seems to represent Snowden’s critical thinking far more favourably. A drone falling from the sky at the scene’s conclusion visually represents the ‘penny drop’ as Snowden’s point is driven home.
By the end of the movie, we see an entirely different Snowden to the blind patriot we met at the start. While Stone notes Snowden is now a fugitive, he represents Snowden’s tale of critical thought as a success story, even for Snowden himself. In the shots of Snowden prior to leaking the info, we see him happier than any other part of the movie, with a brightly-lit close-up headshot as he leaves the NSA headquarters encapsulating his joy. The underscore of uplifting strings only accentuated my feeling of relief as I watched this moment.
As Snowden’s credits rolled by, I couldn’t help but think back to Fahrenheit 451 and how similar these texts are, despite their asymmetrical genres and the half-century lag between them.
Written in nine days during 1953, Fahrenheit 451 explores Bradbury’s vision of a dystopian future where ‘firemen’ spray kerosene instead of water. Burning books and suppressing information, they are an institution employed by a comfort-seeking, thoughtless society to be “custodians of [their] peace of mind”.
By following Montag, a fireman, as he questions his society’s rejection of freethought, Bradbury provides his own tale of the dangers of not thinking for ourselves.
Bradbury opens the book with a telling expression: “It was a pleasure to burn.” While this statement from Montag’s perspective is somewhat expected (for someone who burns books for a living), I believe Bradbury uses it to indicate something more than typical job satisfaction.
As we read on, we are met with passages akin to “Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator,” or “Fire is bright and fire is clean,” and slowly, the representation of fire as a censor and freethought’s antithesis becomes apparent. Combine this with Montag’s description that he could never wash off the smell of kerosene and it becomes obvious Montag is entrenched in a habit of “thinking little at all about nothing in particular”. Bradbury even likens smouldering books fluttering through the air to birds, using the corruption of this symbol of freedom to solidify his representation of censorship as an institutional predator of freethought.
Through these representations, Bradbury depicts the damages of our critical thought being taken away.
But Bradbury doesn’t pin all of society’s pitfalls to Orwellian government control and censorship — he blames ordinary citizens for prompting the downfall. Indeed, as he tells through Montag’s boss Beatty, “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!” Instead, it was people losing time to read, seeing books as too controversial (and intellectually challenging) or preferring brainless entertainment.
We see characters like Montag’s wife Mildred, thoughtlessly live in the “paste pudding norm” books, TV, radio and magazines had become. These characters’ unhappiness — Mildred attempts suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills — ensures readers view this as a disturbing and undesirable world. Bradbury warns us that if we stop thinking and stop wanting to think — as Mildred does — our lives will never be fulfilling.
As the book nears conclusion, Bradbury revisits his Promethean fire motif to illustrate that we are never too far gone for critical thinking to save us — even in this dystopia. Having been found to have hoarded books, Montag is forced to burn down his own house.
He turns to his chief Beatty and says one of my favourite quotes from the text: “We never burned right.”
This simple statement exemplifies Montag’s newfound critical thinking and represents the turning point where he will now use fire — once an oppressive tool — to improve his society. The fire, comparable to Montag’s newfound thought, is used to destroy Montag’s old life, Beatty and eventually all things that grew to symbolise thoughtlessness. The ashes of this destruction fertilise the hope of a better future — Bradbury uses a metaphor of the mythological phoenix to educe a new epoch rising from destruction.
Reflecting upon these texts, I can’t help but notice how their contexts informed their perspectives. While Bradbury wrote his magnum opus during an era of McCarthyism, Cold War tension, and the rise of television, Stone’s film has come in a time where data is collected on everything we do, and no one seems to care. The perspectives informed by these contexts — affirmations of critical thinking’s important — permeate the texts. Cancel culture, social media and deteriorating engagement in politics make these ideas still relevant today — so whether reading Fahrenheit 451 on a rainy Sunday or watching Snowden on a cosy Friday night, we are forced to digest these authors’ perspectives and understand the importance of critical thinking.
Society has endlessly struggled to foster critical thought, and we probably always will. Our habits of unthinking acceptance are just so easy and comfortable. It’s a good thing we have texts like Fahrenheit 451 and Snowden to remind us how important critical thinking can be.
If only more people would listen…