Unmasking America: Literature’s Fight Against Society’s Masquerade
Reading Time: 6 minutes
“So now you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores of the face of life.” —Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 51.
Since its beginning, America has been nicknamed the “land of the free”: a symbol of equal opportunity for all, the place where dreams come true. For so long, it’s been portrayed as the utopian world by the media, borne out of the wishes of brave men who fought their oppressors to gain independence, sustained by ideals of prescribing liberty as an inalienable right, and held up by a capitalist system that embraces each individual to reap what they sow. However, as all “utopian” societies seem to go, the hidden ugly truths are often suppressed until they slowly unravel bit by bit. Literature has always been the biggest means of exposing such flaws: reproducible, accessible, widely varying in formats, and publishable under pseudonyms, it acts as the perfect means to explore any idea, whether head-on or through the building of a parallel world.
However, American society is slowly transforming into one for the public to fear and critique, the counterexample of what we’re meant to embody. Methods of censorship seem to have grown as, ironically, authorities believe that they can convince the public of their righteous and freedom-embracing nature, even while utilizing the same methods of banning books characteristic of dictatorial governments in most dystopian novels, from Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) to Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts (2022). However, even as literature continues to stand against the wave of silencing, more needs to be done. In a society defined by misinformation and performative action, literature stands out as the bright path to bring our reality back to where it was meant to be: one defined by truth, transparency, and tolerance.
The contemporary society in the U.S. can be best illustrated as one massive masquerade: corporations hide behind superficial calls to justice while simultaneously funneling money into policies aimed at exploiting the marginalized, and social media operates under a facade of objectivity as it derives engagement from pushing echo-chamber-like algorithms.
On the note of performative activism, one large example is corporate LGBTQ+ allyship. During Pride Month, companies often add rainbow rings to their profile pictures to show support for the LGBTQ+ community and deck their merchandise with LGBTQ+-representative merch, which in itself is relatively harmless. However, the problem arises when corporations attempt to use superficial votes of support like this to counter genuinely harmful anti-LGBTQ policies/actions. While Meta, a technology company, was earning $13,000 in revenue by pushing advertisements supporting the rhetoric of the queer community grooming children, they were simultaneously creating Pride-themed stickers and touting Meta as a safe space for all. On a larger scale, a Popular Information investigation found that 25 “LGBTQ-supportive” corporations spent a total of over $10 million on politicians advocating for anti-gay rights corporations. This superficial and often hypocritical activism on the part of corporations is not restricted to just the LGBTQ+ community but also applies across the board to other marginalized issues, most commonly seen during the rebirth of the Black Lives Matter movement that peaked in 2020 and 2021.
Social media has become an all-encompassing echo chamber that pushes a fatal mix of harassment, promotion of toxic social norms, polarized and radical opinions, and fake information. According to a survey done in 2017 by Ditch the Label, 42 percent of young people have reported being cyberbullied on Instagram, with 50 percent reporting that the reason was likely due to attitudes toward their appearance. Social media also profits off of the perpetuation of harmful beauty standards: by creating algorithms that are biased toward promoting mostly edited posts of what the ideal body or face should look like, companies gain clicks through the obsessive and toxic nature of body dysmorphia and low self-esteem that primarily youth experience. Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of misinformation take hold of the population, as 78 percent of adults reported believing or being unsure of at least one of eight false statements regarding the pandemic. The two most believed were the idea that the government exaggerated COVID-19 death counts and that pregnant women should refrain from getting the vaccine. All in all, the manufactured nature of social media has worked as a way to obscure the truth while hurting users. Distortion defines what social media is, and without intervening agents, we are pushed into an increasingly artificial reality.
Amidst all this, the one bright path has been literature. English classrooms continue to act as our biggest tool against the deceptive nature of society; while diving into a combination of classics, Gothic literature, modern dystopian fiction, and everything in between, students uncover parallels to the modern world that are intentionally hidden from the public eye in most regards. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley has become a cautionary tale for reckless human pursuit, a narrative echoed in modern concerns as artificial intelligence develops at an unprecedented rate. The Giver by Lois Lowry depicts a future world where citizens have their memories wiped and are raised under a perfect, pain-free world built on a lack of individual freedoms and choice, a parallel to the utopian veil that the U.S. continues to attempt parading under. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023), the prequel to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, one particularly chilling line stands out: “Your job is to turn these children into spectacles, not survivors,” a tale that frighteningly resembles the performative nature of corporate activism today, focused on good press rather than real change. Undoubtedly, literature has opened our eyes to how our world continuously moves toward the dystopia we’ve been warned about for centuries.
As those in power catch on to the power of literature, they have not been silent, as we’ve seen a wave of book banning across America. According to a study by PEN America, there were 3,362 book bans in the 2022 to 2023 school year, a 33 percent increase from the year before. The most common reasons for doing so included sexually explicit material, offensive language, or material “unsuited to any age group.” Two out of the three above reasons are crystal clear infringements of the constitutional right to free speech and ideas underlying American society. Schools attempt to justify it under the idea of “protecting” children, but as protection is subjective, it is no different than using authority to manipulate the narrative that students are taught in policymakers’ favor. The fate of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, an iconic high school English novel that is now one of the many targets of censorship, is perhaps the most ironic. It is a novel whose entire plot revolves around the consequences of censorship in society, and current attempts to suppress it have now supercharged its message to the world. As librarians, individuals, and organizations continue to fight against book bans, it seems this censorship has been held back to a degree. However, even so, there is much more we need to do.
Societal reform has to happen at every level, from the ideological to the tiniest of practicalities. Only when we modify the lens through which we view the world will we truly have an impact. It has happened before at every turning point in society: the movements of the late 20th century, the Enlightenment, the list goes on. As we approach the test of our generation, whether we will be able to stand against the distortion of the truth or crumble as it spirals further from reality, we learn that it is defined by what we do in the coming years. We need to hold our leaders accountable and lift the veil of ignorance that blinds us. This doesn’t just mean supporting local libraries, but uniting against censorship at every level of legislation, too, from school districts to the national level. National initiatives across the country, such as Unite Against Book Bans and the American Library Association’s Fight Censorship, provide the resources and training to do so at every stage, including contacting legislators in your district, discussing problems of book censorship at school board meetings, and continuing to inform the public of the current attack on our freedoms. Embracing the voices of every community is critical, from highlighting those of the youth who will shape our future to marginalized groups whose histories of oppression are currently the most vulnerable in the face of censorship. We can no longer stand by, for the breaking point when we choose to act will likely be long past the point of no return.
As we enter a new era of the world, we must band together to uphold literature and allow it to take its role in combating the falsehood that now defines our society. Only then can we move off the path to a dystopian future that we are currently barreling toward.