Tuesday, February 13, 2007

On “Uncensored Thoughtlessness”

For years I used this poster as a reminder of the consequences of “thoughtlessness” in my own writing.

But more recently I have studied it for what it says about censorship, “thoughtlessness,” freedom and fear.

More and more, it speaks to our times, and, like them, it is one scary poster.

It was clearly designed to prevent the divulgence of Allied secrets to the Nazi enemy in World War II. It makes the consequences of “unintended thoughtlessness” quite clear: destruction, in this case in the form of an incoming bomb.

But the poster is based on certain assumptions:

• That we know what “thoughtlessness” looks like when we see it.
• That if we don’t, we are willing to turn the determination of “thoughtlessness” over to someone else, namely censors.
• That in the hands of the censors, only “thoughtlessness” will be censored.
• That censors know best.

Some of the assumptions in the poster are revealed by playing with and changing the words.

For instance, what are the results of censored thoughtFULness? In times of war, thoughtfulness can easily fall victim to censorship—even, as we will see, self-censorship—all in the name of national security.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.

And don’t we need to ask what the result—indeed the VALUE—of UNcensored thoughtFULness is? What would a wartime poster proclaiming that look like?

And finally, what about uncensored thoughtlessness? A lot of what passes as thoughtful is, in reality, thoughtless, although we have been frightened into accepting it as true.

Witness what was accepted as “intelligence” (one of the great Orwellian terms of our time) in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Should it have been “censored”? No. Should it have been rejected? Absolutely, but fear prevented it.

Finally, the most insidious aspect of the poster is that it ultimately calls on us to censor ourselves. It asks us to consider how our thoughts are dangerous in ways we may not know. We are left to speculate. The poster is asking us to do the perverse—to climb inside the heads of our censors, and then censor ourselves.

In short, the poster is advocating self-imposed thought-control based on ignorance—a kind of cannibalism of the mind.

Is that what this soldier in the desert is fighting for?

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