My column in today’s DNA
A utopian society is an ideal one, which is represented by a perfect balance of happy citizens, a responsible state, a cohesive society – where everyone lives happily ever after. In a Utopian society, there is no coercion, no control; there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place. All ideas co-exist. There is discussion without rancour. There is little or no crime, and war and illness have no place. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ideal society. Literature and epics allude to Utopian kingdoms in the distant past. But, it tends to be more in the realm of fiction than reality.
The direct opposite of a utopian society is a dystopian one. It is a society marked by utter repression and control, in which suspicion and coercion are the norms. A dystopian society is one in which the State or a ruling oligarchy takes away the rights of its citizens for ‘their own good’. Rewards in such a society are few, and punishment swift and lethal. Authors and movie directors have successfully depicted a dystopian future in which there is total censorship, mind control, obedience – where humans are enslaved by technology, where women are mere chattel. Books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Margret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World all describe a dystopian future as do Films like Terminator, Running Man, Blade Runner. Amongst the more powerful works in a not so nice, not so distant future is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Last week marked the death of Bradbury who brought to life a society in which books are illegal. Fahrenheit 451, the title, refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns. What is most gripping about the book is the premise of a society that is so overwhelmed by television and short attention spans that books are seen as a threat to public safety and happiness. New ideas that are communicated by books are perceived, in this society, as being dangerous and offensive to various minority groups and are burnt. There are two parts to the novel – both equally valid. The first part is those of us, the people, who consume mass media and whose world view is exclusively shaped by it, and the second is the State that uses this to its own advantage. While the story is an indictment of censorship, it is also an indictment of mass perceptions and mass hysteria. It is a call to reach beyond the accepted norm and pause and ask basic questions. Mass Media is not God, nor is it infallible, nor is it without its own agenda. Good citizenship is not just questioning the Government or political parties – it is also questioning the media that we consume.
Of all the books on a dystopian future, Fahrenheit 451 cuts closest to the bone because books, rather ideas, have been censored in the distant and not so distant past, and in our present. The ancient Chinese (and the modern ones) banned books. Germany under the Nazis used to make a bonfire of books written by Jewish authors. Iran, under Khomeni, passed a death sentence on Salman Rushdie for writing Satanic Verses. The Government of India has an abysmal record on kowtowing to religious extremists of all hues and shades and banning books. It doesn’t take a tremendous leap of faith the believe that a future society can come into being where every dissenting voice is silenced, where every new idea is suppressed and books become the target of mob ire. Henrich Heine had aptly predicted that where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings, and his books were amongst the first to burn in Nazi Germany.
A story like Fahrenheit 451 resonates especially today where we are bombarded by highly sophisticated propaganda by all sides. But ultimately, the take away from the book – is not the death of ideas, but the fact that ideas can never die. As long as there are people willing to think and question, the spread of ideas will not stop. Brave, ordinary citizens from time immemorial have risked life and limb to save books, to pass on ideas to bypass censorship. They have fought against the might of the monarch, of the State, of the Party and of organised Religion. And, they have prevailed. It is possibly why the idea of anonymous masked people defacing websites as a protest against court orders blocking specific sites is so disconcerting. Through out history freedoms have not been won by those lurking in the shadows of anonymity, but people who have had the courage of conviction to openly add their name to dissent. Technology and modernity do not change that. And finally, the thing to remember is that Guy Fawkes – whose mask has become the symbol of the modern cyber protest – was never ever Anonymous.