Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, and mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.....
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?--From Ray Bradbury (1953) Fahrenheit 451, pp. 75-6
Judging by the results of a Google search, which shows me links to many essay writing companies, the passage quoted is extremely popular among high school and college students. So, for all I know what follows has been worked out countless times before (and, if not, will -- because it's free -- perhaps become a staple of such essays). The narrator here is Beatty, the fire captain and boss of the main protagonist, Guy Montag. Montag -- his name (man Monday) an allusion to Crusoe's man Friday* -- is part of a book burning brigade (firemen). The speech occurs just as Montag's growing doubts about his work and society are crystallizing.
As it turns out, Beatty's own stance toward his own work and society is also ambivalent, but this is shown more indirectly. Be that as it may, he understands legal censorship as originating in self-censorship which arises out of three elements: a do-no-harm principle, mass democracy, and a heterogeneous population. The embrace of a do no harm principle is not a deeply felt normative stance, but rather dictated by prudence--minorities can organize and create unwanted controversy and hurt sales. In a heterogeneous population it will be difficult to avoid giving offense except by embracing a certain blandness and conformity. The idea being that in a homogeneous society free speech is more natural.
One may read in Beatty's speech a prescient prediction about the origin of what is now known as political correctness (something Bradbury encouraged late in life). But his speech is more subtle. His list of possible would-be-aggrieved minorities omits mention of African Americans and Jews. When the book was published, the great civil rights victories were still in the future, and the persecution of Jews (and the burning of their books) too fresh in living memory. So, the underlying (neo-Humean) idea is that only when one's resentment can be felt by the majority, will the majority embrace bland conformism toward that minority.
The previous paragraph may be thought speculative. But Beatty himself goes on to call attention to the two key elements, first not everybody is born equal and, second, he exposes the conformist violence at the core of his consumerist, mass-media society when he describes the school bullying of the boy** that stands out. In an age of McCarthyism, Bradbury need not have done it, but the political significance of bullying is made explicit (with a nod to the Constitution)-- bullying makes us equal. That is, rather than being a bug of a democratic polity, conformist violence is a feature of it.+ While African Americans are effaced, the burning of witches at Salem haunts the whole narrative. It is no surprise, then, that such a society, which disguises its own structural violence by, paradoxically presenting it as spectacle, expresses it abroad with a violent foreign policy.
To what degree Beatty's origin story fits the facts is an open question. (This is a society in which the printer Benjamin Franklin has become the patron saints of book burners. There is a Swiftian fondness for reversals.) Beatty's diagnosis of the conformism and self-censorship of modern mass culture echoes the meritocratic critique of democracy first developed by Mill (recall here and here). Beatty is an interesting character because he clearly is the nerd in disguise (he is well read despite the prohibition) who goes on to serve a soul-less and cruel regime.++ The regime is grounded in elections, but no less cruel for it. Its bad laws rooted in public opinion.
This last point deserves more emphasis. The underlying horror of the society depicted is that human life in it is trivialized. Something that Guy Montag becomes increasingly sensitive to. This lack of soul is what creates an undercurrent of clinical despair and dangerous thrill-seeking; where fun is everything. It's a bit surprising that Bradbury is not thought of as the prophet of the clinical depression epidemic of a society addicted to communication by (ahh) screens; this is a society in which all feeling is at the surface and in which our desires for goods are made to outstrip our means, but no connection intimate. For such intimacy is only possible -- the point is made explicit right at the start of the novel [Clarisse does not want anything from him]-- if it is not instrumentalized.
For, while Bradbury himself facilitated the idea that this was a book about the perils of censorship, the truer theme of the book is the pernicious effects of spiritual deprivation on individual and society. At the start of the book, when talking to Clarisse, Montag understands himself (cf. Plato's Cave), by chance, as somebody watching a puppet show. Clarisse is likened to an angel more than once. She is the prophetic light that points the way out of the cave.*** It's no surprise then in the aftermath of rational-man-made cataclysm -- mutually assured destruction is the fruit of the tree of knowledge --, the novel closes with a quote from Revelation (22:2), which not only prophecies such a destruction, but also the promise of a light that follows. Those that have read the novel will understand my conclusion: there is only redemption if you can hold on to a text.
*This is worth further exploration.
+I don't mean to suggest that Fahrenheit 451 condemns the exclusion of Blacks--rather, what makes it so disconcerting is that it explains the mechanism behind social exclusion.
**Fahrenheit 451 starts with an example of a non-conformist girl, Clarisse McClellan, but she is the exception. The other women are portrayed as treacherous, bland, and cruel (not the least to themselves). They exercise their right to vote by voting for the best looking candidate with the best name.
++ I don't deny that he may have ended up loathing himself for this.
***That a prophet is required to escape the cave becomes the standard reading with Al-Farabi.