Skip to comments.How Reading Great Literature Helps Protect You From Big Brother’s Thought Control
Posted on 02/17/2021 7:09:01 AM PST by Kaslin
The turn language is taking in politics calls to mind that controlling language to control thought was a prime goal of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s ‘1984.’
Back in the 1990s, an adjunct English professor at Bakersfield College used to start first-day freshman composition by writing the F-word on the whiteboard in big capital letters. She’d then turn around and explain the word’s etymology, point out that its moral connotation was entirely a construct, and tell the students in no uncertain terms that any scandal they felt was due to their parochial ignorance. She would disabuse them of this ignorance during the class in a semester-long crash course in cultural politics.
One wonders whether she ever got to the actual principles of English Composition.
I can’t remember Prof. F-bomb’s name. As I recall, though, her approach to English wasn’t atypical then. Not everyone was quite so aggressive or abrasive, but the tendency to make English about social politics and the “demystification” of language was widespread. English classes were less concerned with making meaning of language and literature than with laying bare the politics behind texts and “debunking” them.
This approach to English is wholly negative. The academy has, for decades now, been entirely devoted to subverting, demystifying, and debunking the ideals expressed in language and literature. What was previously seen as transcendent and timeless standards of aesthetics and values have become the very “mystifications” that need to be debunked. Like the moral valence that attaches to the F-word, transcendent ideals are taught as no more than social constructs.
At its root, the debunking of values is rooted in the destabilization of language that comes out of what the profession calls “literary theory.” A major tenet of theory posits an unbridgeable gap between words and meaning. In such a system, words never exactly refer to the reality they signify. Real meaning is always fleeing from language, and words themselves never entirely catch up.
The theory explains that meaning is conferred upon language by culture. But, of course, cultures are not disinterested, and what cultures of the past have asserted are matters of truth are actually, so runs the argument, simply matters of political assertion. What passes as meaning is mystification constructed in the service of oppression, needing to be debunked by modern critics.
The perceived instability of language makes debunking possible. Since the meaning of words is not stable—“provisional,” as theorists say—then it is constantly subject to revision. The ramifications of theory are very far-reaching.
The real meaning of all the literature of the past is, as it were, up for grabs. What Homer means is subject to revision. The same is true for Shakespeare and the U.S. Constitution. Even one’s gender is ultimately provisional.
Gender identity might seem a strange addition to a list of canonical Western texts, but in light of “theory,” it really isn’t. One of the outworkings of critical theory is that gender and sexual identity are “discursively constructed,” determined by language, not biology. The meaning of language, recall, is determined by culture and subject to revision. Is it any wonder, then, in a culture fed a steady diet of theory in college English for decades, that gender and sexuality are also subject to revision?
George Orwell had some things to say about paying attention to the English language and the disastrous consequences of ceding its control to a political party intent on reducing it to a means of political power. In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell warned about lack of precision in writing, arguing that vague language leads to vague thinking and eventually to let those who produce the canned phrases in which we habitually communicate (“systemic racism,” anyone?) do our thinking for us.
Anyone paying attention to the news recently will have noticed that the processes Orwell warned us about seem to be taking place in real-time. To the vagueness of “systemic racism,” we can add terms like “insurrection,” “fascist,” “sedition,” and even “democracy.”
These words, freed from their traditional meanings, are being used “provisionally” to politically expedient ends, namely to color undesirable political thoughts and actions as dangerously criminal. When charged words like these are left vague and made dependent upon political context for their definitions, it is nearly impossible to even think in opposition to the contemporary narrative without condemning oneself.
The turn language is taking in politics calls to mind that controlling language to control thought was a prime goal of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s “1984.” The Ministry sought to control language by reducing the number of words in the vocabulary and rendering their meanings increasingly abstract so the Party could control their meaning and usage. The reduction of language made it necessary for the Party to excise much of the canon of Western literature because the rich and concrete meaning attached to words in literature made it harder for the Party to control language.
One might think that literature—and especially poetry—given its penchant for metaphor, tends to make the language less precise, but such is not the case. Recall that Orwell says that precise language is concrete, as opposed to abstract.
Tying words to concrete things is just what literary language—especially poetry—does. It embeds words in a whole tradition of images and concepts that give them deep and permanent meaning. One thinks of love differently when one has read Shakespeare. It is hard to force a mind steeped in classic literature to think in a vague, politically malleable language. No wonder the Party had to do away with the Western canon.
Frighteningly, dismantling the canon is another Orwellian turn that culture seems to be taking. A high school in Lawrence, Mass. recently canceled Homer’s “Odyssey” due to its political incorrectness. Leicester University in the U.K. has proposed removing “Beowulf” and Geoffrey Chaucer from their English program in favor of “a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonized curriculum.”
This trend means English graduates’ literacy will be even more shaped by politics and even less by literature. And those graduates will shape the literacy of future generations.
Orwell’s admonition to think precisely is not an admonition to think narrowly. In fact, a casual perusal of the history of English writing will reveal irrefutably that those who have written most precisely have in fact thought—and read—very broadly. It makes sense. To use words precisely, one must have working knowledge of a number of them at one’s disposal.
This leads us to a somewhat ironic conclusion: The neglect of the language in favor of politics that has taken place in English over the past few decades has led to an impoverishment not only of the language but also of our politics. If we want our politics to improve, we need to reverse the process and start once again to cultivate the language. English needs to be about English.
Orwell said, “In Prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them.” If those whose business in life is to cultivate the language will not take up the fight, then who will?
Hard copy libraries are a treasure. When you visit most peoples homes, where’s the library? Where are the books? Where is the music?
Used to see this a lot in estate sales. Tv replaced books and music for many. Never could understand it.
My problem is running out of shelves.
I still have vinyl records.
You can put THOUSANDS of books on a thumb drive. [Gutenberg.org, for example]
You can put THOUSANDS of songs on a thumb drive or MP3 player.
Reading Shakespeare's work isn't going to help me learn more about the events leading up to Lexington and Concord. Reading Homer isn't going to help me learn more about the pastors and preachers on the front lines of the cause of Liberty. Reading early historians from the late 1700s to the late 1800s will teach me what America used to be, what it really is, while reading Jane Austen doesn't carry the same necessary knowledge.
I'm sure it needs to be said, these are all in fact great books by great authors. But great books, which ultimately are nothing more than entertainment cannot address one of our greatest weaknesses, which is our knowledge of history.
We don't need more entertainment. We're already entertained to death as it is.
My wife and I have recently moved, since my retirement. The largest room in the house will be the library, once we build the shelving. Right now we have dozens of boxes of books stacked everywhere, and it’s a pain, not least because it’s really hard to find a particular book.
When the great books are canceled, their great thoughts are canceled. That is the object. Same goes for canceling American traditions and demonizing American traditions to justify and replace with critical race theory, formerly known as thought control.
I have to disagree.
Classic literature teaches us what human nature is, and that it never changes.
It teaches that there will always be jackasses that want to control you; to regulate every aspect of your life for their own sadistic pleasure. They will say it’s for various important reasons, but it always comes back to their pleasure in causing you inconvenience or even pain.
Books also teach that unless you resist them, you will spend the rest of your life under their thumb.
This is not to say you shouldn’t read about Lexington and Concord, but you should consider that there are many ways besides an outright revolution that these jackasses will want to control your every thought, and classic literature is a way to do that.
I can’t remember Prof. F-bomb’s name
Consent of the
One irritant is improper use of the word “gender”, a term used to describe feminine or masculine nouns, pronouns and the like, but not a person. We fear the word “ sex” now.
In general I think your synopsis is correct, but these are just generalities about some nebulous control freaks that really have no bearing. It’s not specific like our own story. That’s what makes it so stark. We had an actual king and actual Americans.
The problem I have is that American history always gets pushed to the side. We only have 24 hours in a day. We only have 7 days in a week. We only have 365 days in a year. By the time we get recommendations for “the classics”, by the time we get recommendations for great European leaders, by the time we get recommendations and end up reading socialist works, and by the time we get recommendations for some stupid hollywood movie that someone thought they saw some sliver of conservatism in one single line of the movie, by the time we are inundated with tales of World War II, by the time we spend a week discussing the latest media outrage, by the time we discuss the latest outrage from congress, there’s not much time and ability left. I have little doubt you could on your own come up with 5 different and unique distractions, from sports to big tech to other corporate chicanery.
I have very little doubt that many users around here have more knowledge about various Russian czars and Charlemagne(Charles the Great) than they do our own Founders say John Hancock, James Otis, or General Warren, and most importantly the role of King George III and Parliament in the entire situation. Keep an eye on FR, you’ll see it.
About the only thing that’s left that anybody can make time for is the Federalist Papers. That’s really the one and only thing that I see a distinct general knowledge of. Which is heartbreaking considering how in-depth and illuminous America’s founding history actually is in its totality. America’s founding history just gets pushed aside. And with the Federalist often times its not even a full throated discussion of the papers, let’s just get some quotes and fit them into our own views(many out of context) instead of us molding our views in the 21st century to the Founders.
And then we have the lack of recommendation about the Abolitionist era and the even worse recommendation coverage of the progressive era.
This problem is a widespread and systemic cancer. We can’t defend our country this way!
That’s why progressives own history. There’s no opposition, certainly not from us. This is simple addition:
No knowledge of the founders
No knowledge of the abolitionist era
No knowledge of the progressive era
The 1619 Project.
Well I'm glad I kept that one on my bookshelf. Makes for much more chilling reading knowing that there are many in our country today who would happily roust Trump supporters and other patriots out of their beds in the middle of the night and take them to concentration camps.
Going into other people's homes, I take note of what books (if any) they have on display and take the measure of their intelligence based on that.
There’s a lot to be had at auctions. Got the Harvard Five Foot Bookshelf for $35.
I have been a reader of 19th century historical novels for many years.
Novels that essentially have a plot overlay of real historical fact and factual descriptions of conditions. Russian and slavic novels for example, were really an eye opener for explaining Russian and eastern european behavior and attitudes today.
There is absolutely a large hole in classic literature regarding American history. There is so much that could be written that could explain how we got here, teaching historical fact without the “teaching.”
I agree most anything written today is no more than fluff, and movies are mostly useless for teaching anything.
As for the federalist papers, everybody should have read them at least before they graduate college. I think even more important are the anti-federalist papers. The cynic in me finds that they predicted actual outcomes far better than the federalists.
“As for the federalist papers, everybody should have read them at least before they graduate college. I think even more important are the anti-federalist papers. The cynic in me finds that they predicted actual outcomes far better than the federalists.”
Eh, I don’t know about that, the federalists, or at least John Adams, certainly ended up predicting the actual outcomes of the French Revolution far better than the anti-federalists, or at least Thomas Jefferson did, and that was despite the latter actually being in France at the time it went down.
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