Forbidden Thoughts and Common Sense

In The Book of the New Sun (see previous post), the protagonist’s nation is at war with a group called the “Ascians,”  Wolfe swears this shouldn’t be read as “Asians,” but Wolfe saw combat in Korea…. so yeah, they’re the Yellow Hordes, and their “language” consists solely of quotations from government propaganda.  A central episode of the final novel is the narrator listening to a “story” by an Ascian prisoner, told entirely in soundbites from (the far future equivalent of) Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

Folks who study totalitarianism call these quotations “thought-terminating cliches,” and while the prisoner is capable of making his meaning known with them, the story he tells is itself a cliche — that of a just man being persecuted, then rescued by The Party.  It’s a neat trick.  Wolfe both humanizes the prisoner, by showing his inventiveness, while also showing that collectivism reduces even the most intelligent, inventive man to thinking in patterns no more complex than a fairy tale.

Orwell tried a different technique in 1984.  The Ascians are window dressing in Wolfe’s books, but Newspeak is central to Orwell’s.  As Orwell explains, Newspeak aims to reduce human thought by reducing vocabulary.  With only a handful of words that have unchanging, concrete meanings, one simply can’t express abstract concepts like “love” or “justice” or “freedom,” and so they cease to exist.

Our modern Ed Biz gurus haven’t gotten quite to either point yet — though not without some serious effort in both directions — but they’ve come up with something equally insidious, that works almost as well: Stuffing students full of disconnected factoids.   Ray Bradbury described it in Fahrenheit 451:

chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking.

That’s modern “education” in a nutshell: Endless praise for the endless regurgitation of “facts”… and punishment for putting any two facts together.

Just to stick with a theme from the Hard Truths, consider two “facts” that “everybody knows” about human beings: 1) We share 96% of our DNA with chimps, and 2) the “theory” of evolution is true.  Now, suppose for the sake of argument that both of them actually are true.  If one were genuinely curious about human origins, one would ask the immediate, obvious question these two facts raise: What’s in the 4%, that gives us language, music, and the Designated Hitter?  There’s only A, C. G, and T, for pete’s sake — which combo do we have, that chimps don’t  have, that lets us paint the Sistine Chapel while their only art form is flinging poo?

But now the punishment kicks in.  I bet some of y’all were even tempted to it yourselves — “whaddaya mean, suppose evolution is true?  What are you, some kind of gap-toothed fundamentalist?”

See what I mean?  You’re Smart for knowing that evolution is true, and you’re Smarter for knowing we share 96% of our DNA with chimps.  Everyone who Fucking Loves Science does!!

It’s not quite Newspeak, but we’re getting there.

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9 thoughts on “Forbidden Thoughts and Common Sense

  1. MBlanc46

    Some sources give 98%. Whichever, I was chewing over the question, but I’m a philosopher, not a geneticist, so I haven’t a clue. As someone who knows a bit about epistemology and the philosophy of science, I’d suggest that we’re probably better off not using the predicate “true” for high level entities such as evolution, relativity, or the standard model of particle physics. “Confirmed” or “disconfirmed” or some proportion thereof are probably more useful and less contentious terms. But I suppose that doesn’t solve the problem of modern education.

    Reply
    1. Severian Post author

      Even Karl Popper would allow a little exaggeration for rhetorical effect, don’t you think? 🙂 Because the point stands regardless — if we know the exact 4% (or whatever) that’s different, then that 4% is what makes humans human. So what’s in there? That I have never heard anyone even ask this question before tells us all we need to know.

      Reply
  2. Pickle Rick

    Which is why when they found out that all non black Africans have 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA, the conclusions of that revelation are not allowed to be discussed…

    Reply
    1. Severian Post author

      It’s everywhere. Behavioral tendencies are obviously heritable — so obviously that it takes a lifetime of very expensive training to ignore the evidence of your own lying eyes. I suspect this is why the SWPLs suddenly dropped their pit bull fad from a couple years back — no, it’s not a “social construction,” pit bulls really are more vicious and aggressive than other breeds, because they’re bred to be. Pointing out a particular pit bull that wouldn’t hurt a fly does nothing to disprove heritable group characteristics — it’s like me arguing that because Peter Dinklage can’t dunk a basketball, it is impossible for a human being to dunk a basketball.

      Acknowledging that leaves good Liberals on the horns of an impossible dilemma. If behavioral characteristics aren’t heritable in humans, then you must explain how we alone — we of the 98% (or whatever) chimp DNA — managed to escape the fate of all other animals, chimps included. If, on the other hand, behavioral characteristics are heritable, well, so much for Social Justice — some groups are just more equal than others, and they are so right out of the box.

      It’s amazing, really, how well trained we are in the art of entailment avoidance. That’s why I love to tell Liberals I’m the only guy I know who really believes in evolution — humans are just chimps, and chimps are the most vicious, hierarchical, patriarchal, socially unjust goons in the animal kingdom.

      Reply
  3. Skedastic Racket

    Incoming college rant.
    Even in my Evolutionary bio course the actual data, and a good explanation of how someone decided we are 98% similar to chimps, were never shown. I guess I’ll look up the paper eventually but I get so tired of having to find the useful information on my own in order to really understand how things are done. My college classes were 50% memorizing facts, 45% listening to a professor explain an equation, and 5% learning how to think through a problem. And guess what, the 5% mostly came from the 80 year old white dudes in various departments.
    In inorganic chem the professor once called out the entire cohort because nobody could “think like a chemist” in his words, and we were all 1 semester away from graduating. Although to be fair, most people there were pre-meds, who are renowned for having less curiosity than a gnat.
    And since I mentioned Evo bio, I have a short story to corroborate Sev’s point. We had to sit through a TED talk that some trannie gave, about how evolution supports the idea of transitioning between the sexes. The trannie talked about some ciclids in the Japanese sea or something. When the school becomes all one gender through predation or what have you, some of the fish will actually change gender to preserve the ability to reproduce. The TED talk was very much presented in a way so that you would come away thinking that fish change gender, and therefore humans probably can too. And evolution would soon know how this happens.
    The giant holes in this idea being of course that humans in no way undergo the same selection pressures that fish do, nor do our hormones do the same things, although the same types of hormones are present. E.G. prolactin in mammals regulates milk production, but in fish it regulates blood salinity levels. But was that ever mentioned? Nope, the professor treated the whole thing rather seriously and was of the opinion that the science was still unclear.
    Oh boy, college really grinds my gears.

    Reply
    1. Severian Post author

      There it is. For the record, I don’t believe for a second that we’re 96% chimp – it doesn’t pass the smell test. But the fact that we’re taught it, and parrot it, to the point where it’s something that all “educated” people just know, shows us how successful the technique really is. Because if it were true, then we could point out the exact gene sequence that gives you opposable toes (or not), a Broca’s area (isn’t that the brain’s speech center) or not, not to mention the specific muscles and other structures that allow speech in the first place (isn’t it the hyoid bone and whatnot, that chimps don’t have? Bio 101 was long ago and far away).

      It’s not just science, of course. Every college class ever taught on the US Civil War — hell, it used to be every high school class on it — presents two seemingly irreconcilable “facts:” 1) The Civil War was a war for slavery, and 2) only 25% of Southerners owned slaves. Say what?!? One of those two must be wrong, and since I’m familiar with how they got the numbers, I find the numbers fairly convincing….

      It’s an insidious technique, used well by some real sneaky SOBs.

      Reply
      1. Skedastic Racket

        It really doesn’t. 96-98% is the maximum limit of our relationship, but it’s probably a decent sized overestimate. I think the number was derived purely from the DNA sequence, which ignores the role of introns/exons, chromosome structure, and then all the stuff we are ignorant of. You would probably get a Nobel for figuring out how to quantify either of the first two, so basically there’s no idea how much true variation exists.
        See but opposable toes aren’t interesting, what’s interesting is finding out which SNP’s create disparate health outcomes. /s

        Reply
  4. Frip

    Severian: “Folks who study totalitarianism call these quotations “thought-terminating cliches’.”

    I’m familiar with the concept. But I’ve never heard it put so well as “thought-terminating cliches”. I think of so many political arguments with women in college. They’d just repeat cookie cutter phrases that I heard my professors saying all day.

    I was too young, so I’d actually try and argue against these well-formulated nonsense terms. I’d end up being tongue tied because I felt in charge of keeping the conversation bound by reason.

    Today I’d have just responded with, “I’m sorry, what does that mean?” Thereby placing the burden of their bullshit on them to explain.

    God I was so gallant. So in charge of keeping the conversation legitimate. When all they wanted to do was score emotional points and win.

    I can’t speak for soiboys now days. But even back in the 90’s it seemed that guys arguing against other guys, felt the need to sound honest. To back up our bullshit with painstaking, boring logic. Women never felt the need. Yell…look hurt. Yell…look hurt. Women are gentler. Kinder. Perhaps even more moral. But no combative integrity. I wrestled a girl once, at her urging. And she immediately tried to kick me in the balls. On the ground. Clueless

    Reply
    1. Severian Post author

      “Thought-terminating cliches” comes from Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, his study of Red Chinese brainwashing…. or, these days, a university pep rally. Highly recommended. His The Nazi Doctors is also great.

      Reply

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