Thursday, October 23, 2014

Amusing Ourselves to Death

In the mid-twentieth century, two authors wrote dystopian visions of how civilization might come to be ruled by tyranny, but their visions were quite different.  George Orwell wrote 1984--a vision in which people are ruled by omnipresent governmental surveillance, manipulation, and ever-increasing regulation. In short, the vision of 1984 is a tyranny of control. In contrast to this, 17 years earlier Aldous Huxley had written Brave New World.  Huxley cast a different vision of tyranny. In Huxley's vision, civilization dies a slow-motion death through a culture of passivity, amusement, and thrill-seeking.  In short, the vision of Brave New World is a tyranny of distraction. In the forward to his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman contrasts these two visions:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. 
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. 
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. 
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
While both of these books offer compelling warnings, I fear that Huxley's vision is more accurate in our culture. Distractions assault us ferociously from every direction. Self-control, restraint, temperance, and self-denial are no longer seen as a virtues. Instead, we give advice like "follow your heart" and "do what makes you happy." Our culture's battle-cry is "YOLO!" (you only live once). If we are to be faithful to Christ, we must be vigilant to stand against the tide of distractions that would wash us away in a sea of irrelevance. We must cultivate the ability to think deeply about important subjects and the virtue of sacrificially working hard. As Jesus said, we must "deny ourselves and take up our cross daily" (Luke 9:23). We must stand against the idea that happiness should be our ultimate goal, and instead embrace the truth that happiness is a byproduct of a life well-lived.  (For an excellent treatment of this, see the book by Moreland and Issler, The Lost Virtue of Happiness).

Huxley himself argued that our culture was headed towards his vision of a tyranny of distraction. In October of 1949, a few months after the release of George Orwell's masterpiece, he received a fascinating letter from Aldous Huxley. In this letter, Huxley briefly compares their novels and then proceeds to explain why he believes that his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction.  The letter is below:
Wrightwood. Cal.
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell, 
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four. 
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest. 
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects. 
Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds. 
Thank you once again for the book. 
Yours sincerely, 
Aldous Huxley 
Source: Letters of Aldous Huxley; Image: George Orwell (via) & Aldous Huxley (via)

Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote this letter, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.

HT:  Letters of Note