My desk has changed this week as my wife and I decided to meet some friends in Lexington. As I write this, it is 7 a.m. and I am sitting in a little nook in the corner of the lobby of a hotel. I like hotel lobbies. There is always a carafe somewhere in their midst, full of hot coffee. There is also an anonymity that comes from sitting in the lobby, animated people passing by, going about their day indifferent to my little world. It is a pleasant kind of privacy.
I am reminded of the character in the novel my students and I are studying who sneaks away to write. We are currently reading "Anthem" by Ayn Rand in my sophomore English class. We have entered into the first chapter and found a very distraught world.
The novel is a work of dystopian fiction which criticizes the existence of the individual, like most dystopian novels. No one is distinguished from anyone else. The society in the novel even goes so far to refer to themselves individually as “we” instead of “I.” It is also a sin to write or read, and the tyrannical government declares everyone is the same (even though they are not).
It is an interesting time to be reading this book. While I am hesitant to give my true opinion on certain matters in our changing society for fear of being ostracized by one side or the other, I think it is important that we think. And in the novel, individual thinking is what this particular society destroyed.
The people in this fictional society were not allowed to ask questions, and if they did, the questions had to be asked in a certain manner (in other words not at all). I told my students, if someone gets angry when you ask legitimate questions, then something is wrong.
I watched the class contemplate this statement, the wheels in their intrepid minds turning. One student boldly raised her hand, and I expected a thoughtful, if not inspiring inquiry.
“Yes, Janet?” I said, then sipped my coffee with anticipation.
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
Regardless, for the most part, I think my students are curious about the book, hopefully in context of our society. One other interesting characteristic about the book was the fact that the main character was denounced for being different, when everyone was required to be the same. Ironically, his name was Equality 7-2521.
I read someplace that opportunities should be equal, but outcomes should not. If we act like they are, or make them so, then we are lying and robbing ourselves. Indeed, the society in the novel was primitive because of a lack of growth due to this ignorance. Let me explain. If you were smarter, it was not fair, so a person was not allowed to be smarter. If a person was taller, it was not fair, so it was looked down upon. If a person had abilities beyond the norm, that person was considered offensive, even dangerous.
Another scary facet of the novel was that men and women were not permitted to acknowledge one another. Imagine a society where the concept of man and woman did not exist. They were not allowed to say “he” or “she” and instead went about their world lying about the obvious existence of the other. That might be something important in a society. I used to live on a farm: you don’t milk the bull. It might get offended, then there would be a law against milk.
The most chilling thing about the novel was that these rules and abrasions to living were considered normal. The society accepted these ignorant laws and then scolded themselves when they realized the truth. How did the oppressors do it?
Well, I read something recently that was rather enlightening, especially as I see both sides to all our real-life arguments competing desperately to get a person to follow or believe their truths. Augustin Bazterrica wrote, “There are words that cover up the world.”
In other words, there is the truth of the world, indisputable facts, then there are words that cover them up. When those words, or lies, become laws, it is an attempt to control the way we think. As for me, my wife already has that job.
Brian Theodore is a language arts teacher at Corbin High School and lives in Corbin with his wife, who is also a teacher at CHS. He can be contacted at Theteachersdesk.firstname.lastname@example.org.