Cover illustration for A Brave New World, used without permission
As perhaps the greatest exponent of intellectual self-defence in the world for the past fifty years, Noam Chomsky holds a special place in the hearts and minds of those who truly wish to escape the modern version of the net of psychological manipulation that has been cast over the minds of mankind by the wealthy and powerful since the dawn of civilisation.
Like any great martial artist, (albeit an intellectual martial artist in his case) Chomsky has a laundry list of victories over foes that apparently overmatch him. Periodically I will explore some of Chomsky’s greatest battles, and analyse his keys to victory.
Unlike the physical techniques of an Anderson Silva however, Chomsky’s techniques cannot be used both for good and for evil; they can only be used for good: They are only useful for uncovering the truth and promoting peace between others. This is worth bearing in mind.
Chomsky vs… the “Brave New World” of the Behaviourists
There were several very influential dystopian novels written in the twentieth century. Most people will have heard of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell, which- thematically- dealt primarily with how a right-wing society might attempt to exert thought-control on a population by changing the way they use language, maintaining the fiction of continuous war, and promoting the belief in an authoritarian panopticon… “Big brother is watching you”, wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing.
Then there was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The title being a reference to the temperature at which paper burns. The main theme of this dystopian classic is generally understood to be an exploration of censorship, and its dangers. In the future America envisioned by Bradbury, all books are burned as a matter of state policy; no written material is allowed, mass-media imagery is all that the population consumes.
Both of these books were descriptions of what was happening at the time they were written; Orwell was commenting on events in his own society and other societies in 1949… In England and the US, the Ministries of War had just been renamed to “Ministries of Defence”, in order to make them sound less warmongering than they clearly were, and the “public relations” industry, led- at least as a figurehead- by that most evil of men Edward Bernays, had been on a spectacular run of population-fooling shennanigans for some time. Bradbury was writing at a time when McCarthyism had been rife, and had ruined the careers… and lives… of many innocent progressives. A time when ideas themselves were made illegal.
But while these works were indeed topical, it is worth noting that such social issues have been with us for a long time, and had been reflected in dystopian fiction before. The oldest- and most influential- examples of these were The Iron Heel by Jack London, published in 1908, and We by Yevgeny Zamyati, published in 1921, which influenced Orwell and Huxley to a great degree.
Noam Chomsky has a genius-level intellect, and a degree of psychological toughness that exceeds that of any fighter. Image used without permission.
The last of the major dystopian novels I’ll mention today however, dealt with similar issues with perhaps more recognisably sci-fi devices. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was published in 1932 (and owed a great deal to the novels that preceded it). It described a future dystopia in which all children were artificially grown and their physical and mental development controlled entirely by a powerful and priveliged ruling elite. It described a world in which the working class were bred- and their brains deliberately damaged- so that they would remain servile and unable ever to rebel. It described a world in which all social classes were brainwashed from a very early age to enjoy pointless decadence and futile games, preventing their ability to think deeply on any topic, and therefore their ability to cause any trouble to the established order of authority and hierarchy.
In other words, it described the world that politically motivated followers of B.F Skinner and his “Radical” Behaviourism tried to make a reality.
in 1957 B.F. Skinner published a book called “Verbal Behaviour”, in which the Harvard-based psychologist put forward the idea that children learn language merely through stimulus and response. Skinner’s ideas owed a great debt to Pavlov and his famous canine experiments; Skinner and his behaviourist contemporaries believed- and wished to convince others- that human beings were effectively Pavlov’s dogs; that they learned only through stimulus and response, and were plastic, malleable creatures who could in theory be conditioned to do, learn or accept anything.
To a lay person Skinner himself appears to have been merely a verbose oddball; he was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the deep and obvious flaws in his perspective and/or concepts, and the dark political implications of his ideas. But ideas like Skinner’s were beloved by the rich and powerful, because such ideas gave their immoral exploitation of the poor, weak and vulnerable a kind of moral imprimatur that they had not possessed since “divine right” became old-hat.
After all, if people were simply malleable creatures who could be trained to do anything and trained to accept anything, what was immoral about leaving them in poverty, or making them engage in nothing but the drudgery demanded by higher society? The rich had always had a suspicion that the poor would be happier if they simply accepted their lot in life… and if a famous psychologist from Harvard agreed with their elitist convictions, so much the better.
Already a powerful mind and a lifelong social activist, the young MIT Lingustics professor named Noam Chomsky did see the stark implications, and wrote a response; a scathing critique of Skinner’s ideas.
Chomsky knocked down point after point that Skinner had raised, and at the end of the piece he used simple common sense; he pointed out the simple fact that if we were- as Skinner’s ideas implied- merely a blank slate at birth, we would each have to exist for far longer than the lifespan of a human being before we mastered even the simplest of human languages.
In other words, we must have the core rules of all human language hard-wired into us, or we would simply not have time during our lives to amass the evidence necessary to comprehend an ultra-complex function like human verbal communication. Therefore we do not learn language in terms of stimulus and response, but instead learn language in the same way that a plant grows a flower; the flower needs some external components to fuel its growth, yes (e.g: light and water) but the form it takes is almost entirely pre-destined, and has little to do with “stimulus and response”.
When demolishing Skinner’s more ludicrous ideas, Chomsky also heralded the death of behaviourism as an intellectually defensible strand of psychology. Since then behaviourism has been shunned by the main stream of psychological research.
The importance of this victory cannot be overstated. Chomsky is one man, and in one article he succeeded in wiping out a cancerous strand of the cognitive sciences that was most beloved by the rich and powerful, and was strongly defended by them.
Sadly, in certain areas of life, behaviourism did not die out. For instance Skinner’s behaviourist ideas led to the creation of something nowadays called Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Therapy, a “therapy” of punishment and reward. This was originally used in attempts to “cure homosexuality”, and to train autistic children out of their “undesirable” behaviours. Its older name is less shiny: “Behaviour Modification”. A quack therapy of the most insidious kind, this remains with us today, and because autistic people have very few advocates and often little ability or opportunity to speak out against mistreatment, it is likely to remain for some time.
In addition, businesses still treat their staff as if they are ultimately clay creatures, malleable and entirely mouldable. Governments, the public-relations arm of big business, have increasingly started treating their populations as if they are Pavlov’s dogs. We live in the society that Aldous Huxley described in A Brave New World, a society in which people yearn for transient pleasures and fruitless sensual diversions, a society in which- paradoxically- every class looks down on every other, a society in which the poor are disadvantaged with poor education and poor healthcare until they are almost physically unable to rebel against rapacious power.
But people are more than automatons; more than Pavlov’s dogs. Amazingly, Noam Chomsky won one battle for us virtually all by himself, and saved the sciences from a morally disturbing black hole into which they were being drawn in the 1950s. But the war rages on, and it’s up to the rest of us to prevent the dawn of a brave new world.