Last night, at The Mira Mesa Library, we attended an event hosted by Write Out Loud’s San Diego Chapter. Write Out Loud has been working in cooperation with The Big Read put on by The National Endowment for The Arts to bring literary awareness to the public. They do this by performing excerpts from books, short stories and poems on stage, all of which fall under a theme. They also host events that encourage people to reflect on the themes presented in the stories showcased.
This year, the festivities center around Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. While this work is often described as the story of a dystopian society’s breakdown, it is in actuality a book about self-imposed censorship. In Fahrenheit, the lead character, Guy Montag, is employed as a fireman. He and most of the members of his fictional society do not recall a time when firemen put out fires, history having been overwritten to disguise events of the past, Instead, firemen are charged with burning books, which are considered offensive and inflammatory by nature. Citizens are encouraged instead to watch programs on their giant televisions, which take up entire parlor walls. They are placated by the constant stream of music, chatter and jokes flooding in through seashell headphones they wear. So long as people are entertained, they will remain docile. They never question the fact that there seems to be an eternal war waging overhead. Jets roaring through the skies are perpetually on a mission that no one seems to know or care about, so long as there is something good on the television.
However, what this society calls quality T.V differs greatly from what you or I might accept as watchable. Plot lines have no progression, no real beginning, middle or end. Characters are never really explained or established, they just appear and fight, or dance. Fast motion and bright colors are preferred and story is deemed unnecessary. It is explained that this began because different groups of people took offense to one plot line or another. For example, apple growers might have considered Snow White offensive, because it depicts the fruits they harvest as being poisonous. Step-mothers and step-sisters might have thought Cinderella portrayed them in a bad light. Eventually, it was ruled that stories shown on television, talk-shows on radio, and the music people listened to could not contain anything that might strike someone as disagreeable. Soon, all entertainment was watered down to short bursts of action, never allowing a plot to evolve into something that might spark contrary opinions. People began to censor themselves to make sure that everyone was happy. No one ever heard bad news on the television, like updates on the war or stories about injustice, those might upset people too much. Likewise, no character on any program was ever so defined that they could be considered to misrepresent a type of individual.
When Guy meets a young girl named Clarice, whose family has raised her to question the world around her instead of accept it, his eyes are opened. He starts to see all that is wrong with the world in which he lives. He begins to understand that burning books, which he has done for years, does not really solve any problems. When people aren’t forced to question different opinions and ways of life to discover why they do or don’t agree with it, their minds become lazy and dull. He starts to reexamine his life and the people around him.
A Pleasure To Burn
Last night’s Write Out Loud event sought to give people a similar experience. Under the supervision of actual firefighters, a bonfire was built outside the Mira Mesa library. While it would be frowned upon to burn books in a library, people were handed sheets of paper, on which they could write words they would like to see removed from our everyday language. Think about that. How would your life be different if you couldn’t use the word “can’t” or perhaps “normal” maybe even “hate”? If you simply could not use the word “can’t” how much more would you get done in a day? If there was no concept of “normal” then perhaps people would be more willing to interact with groups of people different from themselves. If you don’t give yourself the option to “hate” some one or something, would you suddenly find that there were things about that person or object you could actually appreciate? That was the purpose of this exercise, to consider how we use language and if we might be able to do so more effectively.
Everyone stood around the bonfire, scraps of paper in hand, and one by one people were called to the flame. Everyone was allowed a moment to explain why they chose the word that they did, and what change they would like to see in society were it made off limits. Of course, this was meant only to provoke thought. Actually removing words from our language would eventually result in the same scenario exemplified in Fahrenheit 451. However, it was a moment where people could step away from the duties of their busy lives, and think about the way the live. It was a moment of reflection like this that awakened Guy Montag to the wrongs of the world around him.
Given the chance, what words would you see removed from our language? Choose one, maybe stupid, ugly, or worthless would work. Take a moment to think about it, and decide why the word you chose is harmful. Then dedicate yourself to not using it for an entire day. When you are forced to be conscious of what you say and why, it makes the words you do use all the more valuable.