Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Separation of Knowledge and State

A commenter on Reason Online's blog Hit & Run tells a frightening story about her experience trying to explain a scriptural reference in Shakespeare:

I taught "Merchant of Venice" to seniors one year; in it there's a line where one character is insulting another, by saying something along the lines of "He damns the ears of all who hear him, by calling him 'fool.'" One of the kids asked me what that meant, so I explained that one of the lesser-known verses of the Book of Matthew has Jesus saying that anyone who calls another a fool will be damned. (I recited chapter and verse, though I can't remember it now.) I went on to talk about the very funny use Voltaire made of that in his essay "The Jesuit Berthier" (an angel tells a priest to stop giving his stupid, boring sermons, because instead of winning souls for God he's endangering the souls of all who hear him, because they all call him a fool), and explained also that this is why cartoony villains in movies developed the habit of using "Fool!" as their default insult; for people familiar with the Bible, the fact that the villain always says "Fool!" is just one more proof that this is an evil, evil dude.

"So anyway," I said to the class, "back in Shakespeare's day, when people were far more familiar with the Bible than they are now, instead of insulting someone by saying 'You are a fool,' you'd say 'You are a--well, I can't SAY what you are because then I'd go to hell.' That's what he's doing in the play."

Next day I get called into the principal's office; some parents were FURIOUS that I had told their kids that Jesus said anyone who says 'fool,' will go to Hell.

"But he did," I pointed out.

"It doesn't matter, Jennifer. You can't insult kids' religions."

"Well, the kid asked me what that line from the play meant! What was I supposed to do?"

"Just tell him you don't know." [emphasis mine]

It is bad enough that these fanatics don't want teachers to teach the bible in class, even though it is a crucial part of the history of civilization. It is even worse that they don't want teachers to explain references to it when they occur in historical or literary works. But to command a teacher to feign ignorance when confronted with a direct question is wicked. This brings to mind the concept of "doublethink" that George Orwell describes in 1984:
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale -- then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control', they called it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink'.


To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.

Two caveats are necessary: first, the usual cautions about anecdotal evidence such as this story apply. When being reprimanded it is always tempting to make ourselves look better than we really are. Second, even if true, this story doesn't necessarily imply a trend or even a wide-spread phenomenon. The principal is obviously acting illegally and probably more as a result of fear of litigation than actual animosity to the bible. But that, in itself, is an Orwellian scenario, is it not?
(Food Chain: Instapundit -> JoanneJacobs -> Hit & Run)

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