Dearest friends and visitors —
I am so sorry that I found it necessary to suspend this for a little while (and might have to again, thanks to the medical complexities I am navigating).
But this is desperately important, and since I am sidelined from being more active in getting out the vote, marching, polling, etc., it’s what I can at least attempt to offer, in the fight to save our country. The last fight, very possibly, before succumbing to a new form of tyranny and authoritarianism that is already threatening to finish off our aspirations for freedom, fairness, and a true democracy.
Today, although I am running late, I am digging deep for the energy, inspired by Michael Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 11/9 (which I HIGHLY recommend, and which includes an interview with author Timothy Snyder himself).
Thanks for continuing your support for this project. Here goes: Lesson Nine.
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
George Orwell, 1984
Have you noticed the echo chamber? The wording, the “newspeak,” the phrasing of things that are repeated over and over and over in the media, until they find their way into normalization?
And the next thing you know, the way we even think about this event, or that idea, is being shaped by the words that have been assigned to describe them.
Dissent becomes, quite literally, unthinkable.
This is no dystopian fantasy. It has happened before in living history, and it is well underway right now.
Words Shape Perceptions
Dr. Snyder offers lessons from history where such tactics helped alter events. He writes that Victor Klemperer, a literary scholar of Jewish origin, noticed how Hitler’s very language “rejected opposition: the people always meant some people and not others.” He notes that P45 uses that word in an identical way.
(By the way, I refuse to call the person currently living in the White House by any title or description of office. I will substitute P45 in those cases, although Snyder does not and calls him by the P word.)
He continues, “Encounters were always struggles (P45 says winning), and any attempt by free people to understand the world in a different way was defamation of the leader (or, as P45 puts it, libel).”
By sheer repetition, these words not only become emotional triggers, they eventually are absorbed as accurate.
For some fascinating examples of how this is being applied today, here is a website PDF you can visit.
Incoming – Faster Than You Can Think
As Snyder notes, you might believe that television would challenge the way politicians feed their clichés to us, via conveying images. But this is not what has been happening. Instead, we are fed a constant barrage of images with almost no time to process what we are seeing.
All in one breath, we are exposed to images of war, robberies, flood victims, and cute dog tricks; the latest threats from Kim Jong Un and then a “breaking news” story about Beyoncé. Wall to wall, day after day, with little or no space to understand what we are seeing, why it is being shown, and what it has to do with.. well, anything.
Don’t believe this? Try watching a news report with the sound off – no fair reading the captions. Notice how much time is spent on issues of weight versus entertainment pieces. Notice how often the same footage is being repeated. Consider why that footage was chosen. And then try deducing what is significant, as, perhaps, opposed to what that report has shown you.
Five minutes later, can you explain, in order of importance, what you just saw?
Bonus activity: Try watching a bunch of advertisements and guess what they are selling.
As Snyder explains:
Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is “breaking” until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean.
The effort to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture.
We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.
The danger comes when we fail to notice the bullet points, repeated over and over, narrowing the scope of discussion, and focusing only on what the speaker wants to convey.
That is what becomes familiar and thereby prioritized. Any other point of view is neglected and eventually forgotten.
Classics of Totalitarianism
Snyder discusses some of the classic novels that warned us about “domination of screens, the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought.”
From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (which I will confess turned me into a borderline book hoarder) to George Orwell’s terrifying 1984, the media becomes the tool of tyranny. By limiting language, turning words on their heads, and dumbing down life in general, the majority becomes a docile, cooperative tool for the ruling elite.
I would add the more recent, popular Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Not the greatest writing in the world, but it offers a chilling exploration of the potentially diabolical marriage between politics and media control. There are many more in this genre, perhaps because our young people are well aware that this dark vision of the future is knocking on our door.
Having recently watched the Oscar-winning performance of Peter Finch, in the classic film Network, I would recommend that if you must spend time watching TV, this is a good way to do it. Like me, you may find that it is even more powerful than it was when it was released (and, at first, hated by the media) in 1976.
Snyder sums up this lesson in a powerful way:
Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else.
When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires reading.
So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s [and Collins’] books could not do this — but we still can.
He lists many important books that can help add context and insight to what is currently happening. From Dostoyevsky to Philip Roth, from the teachings of Jesus to Rowling’s Harry Potter, read, read, read!
And keep questioning and demanding to know what is true, and what is false (i.e., “alternative facts”).
Just finding your way here? Thanks for joining us, and also for sharing with your friends.
If you’d like to go back and re-read from the beginning, no problem:
Introduction to Freedom Fridays
Freedom Fridays: Lesson One – Do Not Obey In Advance
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Two – Defend Institutions
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Three – Beware the One-Party State
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Four – Take Responsibility for the Face of the World
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Five – Remember Professional Ethics
Freedom Fridays: Lesson Six – Be Wary of Paramilitaries
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 7: Be Reflective If You Must Be Armed
Freedom Fridays, Lesson 8: Stand Out