Can knowledge ever be truly hidden from us – and, more importantly, should it be?
In the early nineties, when I was about seven years old, there was a commercial on Canadian TV that I still remember today. It was advertising a magazine called Dinosaurs! I was thrilled by the cover – a roaring Tyrannosaurus rex in profile – and the exclamation point that, on adult reflection, seems to be attempting to compensate for an unimaginative title. The booming voice of the over-enthused actor talked up all the salient features that would attract a child to this flimsy, thin-papered book about rocks shaped like the bones of dead creatures. He made the most of the FREE TOY that came with the publication: Each edition would bring another piece of flat cream plastic shaped like a rib or a spine or some other bone of the king of the dinosaurs, so that by COLLECTING THEM ALL I could put together the skeleton of a T-REX. And if I wasn’t sold on that (I was) then perhaps I might get excited over the fact that this skeleton GLOWED IN THE DARK.
I viscerally remember the urgency with which I yanked at parental sleeves and begged and felt that if I did not collect all the issues and have my own glowing rex skeleton, I would throw up. This anxiety was matched by the excitement that vibrated through my bones as I began saving my allowance (fifty-cents a week) and then purchased the first of what promised to be a long-running series. I don’t recall now if I ever collected more than the first issue, or whether I ever fell asleep next to the pale green glow of a Lilliputian imitation of that mightiest, most iconic dinosaur.
I was not alone in my morbid enthusiasm for the monstrous, tyrannical dinosaur. Countless children the world over collectively adore this killing machine; their fascination begins the moment rex is first seen in one of those large, hardback library books about the prehistoric world or shaking the earth in Jurassic Park, or when his fossilised skeleton – no less impressive in its stripped down state – is viewed from far beneath in a museum. Are all paleontologically inclined children simply bloodthirsty sociopaths? Possibly. Or perhaps there is something else that explains this strange obsession with dinosaurs.
There is a scene in Michael Crichton’s novel, Jurassic Park, that has reverberated through the many selves I have become and shed over the years since I first read it at the age of eleven. It is not a scene you might guess would stand-out, especially to a young boy who only picked up the book because of his love for Spielberg’s adaptation, but who knows how the mechanisms of influence and inspiration work to shape us.
The scene is early in the book and features Alan Grant, our palaeontologist protagonist, musing on the relationship kids have with dinosaurs. Grant notes that little children wield the names of these “terrible lizards” as a form of power. Those colossal, looming skeletons dominating museum halls are symbols of authority figures, of the known and unknown worlds, of the daunting reality into which a young individuating consciousness emerges. To name a thing is, in some important sense, to control it.
The same is true of information. To know something well is to pull yourself out from the subservient position, to reallocate power to the person who was otherwise dominated. To understand something is to begin to know how it works and, therefore, how it can be made to fail. This is why an educated populace is every dictator’s biggest fear. According to Seneca, Roman slaves were not required to wear clothing that identified themselves as slaves, because if they saw how great their numbers were and how vulnerable the masters were, they might have overthrown the ruling class.
As with Rumpelstiltskin, whose name was his undoing, and as with all researchers seeking further information about the disease they wish to cure, knowledge confers power. What child would not want to wield such command over colossal and fearsome creatures?
My favourite dinosaur was the king of them all, but the one that terrified me, that I feared as much as I did the rex but could not admire, whose lethality seemed to my immature mind (which didn’t yet fathom the redness of nature’s tooth and claw) to be hateful and excessive, was Velociraptor.
The Velociraptor we see on screen and read in Crichton’s pages is, in reality, more of an approximation of Deinonychus. This was a larger, fiercer dinosaur, but Crichton felt – as he explained to the discoverer of Deinonychus, whom the author consulted for research – that Velociraptor was a “more dramatic” name. I have always agreed. The exotic V buzzing through the bottom lip and top teeth, the juxtaposition of the clipped puh and tuh sounds, and the suggestion of speed in the first three syllables are exciting in a way that Deinonychus (close in name to the plodding, peaceful Diplodocus) is not.
There is a scene in the Jurassic Park movie when Grant makes a specious argument that the name Velociraptor lends credence to the (now well-established) theory that dinosaurs evolved into birds. “Even the word raptor,” Grant asserts, “means ‘bird of prey’.” My father’s scoff always followed, then the explanation of why this wasn’t evidence of evolution, and then the reaffirmation that God made dinosaurs and birds in the creation week. “Which is why,” a Christian friend once told me, “evolution can’t be called science.”
My parents and the church to which we belonged were of a mindset that saw evolution as liberal propaganda and dinosaurs as contemporaries with people, animals that were unfortunate enough not to survive Noah’s flood or perhaps still existed somewhere in the darkest regions of unmapped jungle. The word “theory”, without which the term “evolution” was never uttered by those in my Christian community, meant to them something like: “A shot-in-the-dark by people with no hope of finding the truth as long as they leave the Bible out of the laboratory.”
Evolution could not be called science. The word theory undermined the validity of Darwin’s ideas. The universe was called “creation” because it was created. In the beginning was the word, the word made everything, and then Adam named all of the parts of creation. If nothing else, an upbringing in fundamentalist Christianity seems to have given me a solid grounding in the primacy of language – and the information it conveys.
I was permitted to read Dinosaurs! but my exploration of the facts of fossils was accompanied by a parental commentary rebutting its claims about the age of the earth, the epochal distance between Dinosauria and Homo sapiens, and the gradual evolutionary process by which they were created. I was allowed to watch Jurassic Park, but every time the advert for it ran at the start of a rented VHS and the voice-over announced that this was an adventure “sixty-five million years in the making”, my father countered, “That’s a lie.” Every time.
I silently resented this constant endeavour to shield me from the evil of secular science and godless worldviews, even though I was a believer too, but this frustration was tempered by relief at my being free to watch and read those movies and books about dinosaurs. It so easily could have been the case that they were thrown into the dump of things deemed out-of-bounds – books, movies, television, and music that could invite demons into our lives because they were the products of Satan. I wasn’t subjected to any demonic activity, but I was certainly tormented by nightmares of those demons I was warned about, and I cried myself to sleep more than once as I worried about the Hell from which they came and to which I feared going.
In the church of my youth, sinful things were banished, and the justification for censorship was some variation on, “The Bible says so,” which frequently also took the form of, “The pastor said so,” or from a parent, “Because I said so.” A brief ledger of the things I was restricted from engaging with would include Dungeons and Dragons, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Saved By the Bell, trick-or-treating at Halloween, and, predictably, the Harry Potter books and movies. Just like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, these were magical objects whose knowledge, imbibed by the unwary, was dangerous enough to place a ban on its consumption.
When I finally lost my faith, the first big change in my thinking was to endorse gay rights. This was followed quickly by ditching my guilt and fear over reading “evil” books and watching “sinful” movies. While these were no small alterations, they were the easiest parts of the metamorphosis from believer to atheist. This is undoubtedly because those were topics hidden from view before my late teens; these were the subjects of the books and films kept away from my eyes, information restricted from my enquiring mind. The camp that was against such things was closed and showed me only what it wanted me to see; the camp that supported gay rights and secularism believed in freedom of information and had conversations with me. This changed my mind.
One of the topics I found most difficult to change my mind on, though I eventually did, was evolution. Science was a topic that, although anathema to my religious peers and leaders, was discussed freely. I was given abundant information on so-called “creation science”. Because I had such knowledge on what my fundamentalist cohorts believed, I found it most difficult to leave behind – and most shocking to discover was a minority view in my society. In the end, I abandoned the silly doctrine of six-day divine creation because I finally learned how unsupported it was by science or reason.
I learned from all of this that if your position is sound and valid, open conversation poses no threat and does great things for the spread and acceptance of your view. I also learned to look more closely at what I am told to look away from.
When I was sixteen and the church announced a letter-writing campaign to Channel 4 to denounce their hiring of a gay man as a presenter of children’s television, I pushed for a better reason than, “Because the pastor said so.” The official reason for their antipathy to Channel 4’s new hire was that children needed “protecting” from the propaganda of gays. If gay people were allowed to teach children that being gay is fine, guess what children would grow up to believe, and then guess where they would spend eternity.
All of this came rushing back to this apostate’s memory when, a few years ago, Russia announced new laws banning anyone from teaching children about homosexuality, including that it exists. The full title of the bill is “For The Purpose Of Protecting Children From Information Advocating For A Denial Of Traditional Family Values”. Note what this announces it is protecting people from: Information.
But there is another factor that ties these instances of censorship together, which is that those being “protected” are children. What would we think of anyone daring to treat an adult in this way? What would an appropriate response look like to the person or organisation that tells you, an adult, that you are not to read books about witchcraft or watch movies with too much swearing? What if this person or group insisted that you were not to be free to watch television shows and films that contain racist tropes, lest you not have sufficient intelligence or moral acuity to discern the bad from the good, to analyse what you are seeing and engage these artforms in cultural conversation?
What if works of art, statues of historical figures, and monuments to moments in our national histories were pushed under that parental rug so that no one could see them? Perhaps a sign would be put up in their place to account for their removal: “For The Purpose Of Protecting Everyone From Information Not Conforming To The Mob’s Values.”
It is possible to sympathise with those whose means are drastic and even unethical when the perceived ends are so dramatically urgent. A person who sincerely believes that atheists burn for eternity in Hell is acting rationally (within the confines of their irrational belief) when they do whatever it takes to keep loved ones from suffering that fate. Equally, when the goal is the abolition of racism, toppling a lump of sculpted stone in memory of a slave-trader might seem like no great cost.
But this is one of the ways tyrannies attempt to justify their methods, with reference to an unendurable fate or a goal so desirable no price is too high. For the communist revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, the “merciless destruction” of the church and state was so important that everything from blackmail to murder was permitted in the service of inciting the “common people” to rebel. Dostoevsky based one of his central characters in Demons on this dissident and had him voice an impeccable distillation of his pseudo-nihilistic creed:
“From unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”
The perception of unlimited freedom is born of the conviction that we can shed ourselves of the burden of morally justifying our actions. When everything is permitted, we are free to restrict others in order to maintain our own “freedom”. When you convince yourself that people who do not tacitly endorse your actions – be it tearing down a statue, banning a book, or persecuting an out-group – must be evil, you have granted yourself not only an excuse to condemn them but an obligation to do so. This is, after all, the only way to maintain your freedom from Satan, or political opposition, or offensive views.
Of course, there is no comparison between raising children to be homophobes and, say, tearing down a statue of a slave-trader; there is, however, a direct comparison to be made, and I am making it, between the justifications for both acts. Both are attempts to sever ties with evil that would undo us. For the fundamentalist Christian, associations with the secular world and its tolerance of gay rights must be broken; for the insurrectionist left, links to the past must be cut from the present. And both groups envision a utopia awaiting all of those who survive the great purge, a Biblical Heaven or a socialist state.
Fundamentalist Christianity is an impoverished tradition in many ways, not least for its dismissal (or total ignorance) of Saint Augustine’s openness of heart and spirit. The man who wrote, “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet,” had lived enough to know something of the “sinful” world. And in his great work of autobiography, he makes full use of this experience, not suppressing it or hiding from it, but revealing his journey through youthful sin to become the man of God we know him as.
While I hold little value in his intention to convert, those who do seek that goal would do well to note that Augustine is a figure of the faith who has always reached unbelievers not by painting himself as a holier-than-thou symbol of purity, but as a man who has struggled with the world as the rest of us do. Augustine learned from his past, he did not erase it. Rather than trying to convince me that the world was absent of the sorts of sin my parents and church hid from me, they might have taught me to engage with it meaningfully.
It wasn’t only the Dinosaurs! magazine that I loved as a boy. I was also smitten with Tintin. For many years, I was unable to satisfy my completionist urge to read all of the young journalist’s adventures, because the second in the series, Tintin in the Congo, was mysteriously absent from every library and bookstore I visited. It wasn’t until my adult rediscovery of Tintin that I learned that the reason for this gap in the series was the overtly racist depictions of the Congolese people.
And then one day I discovered a shrink-wrapped “collector’s edition” of the title, newly published, accompanied by a foreword “describing the publication history of Tintin’s African adventure, and placing it in its historical context”. Here I had a new Tintin story, an examination of the content no ethically sound person would want to ignore simply to preserve the fun of a children’s story, and the beginning of a conversation.
All in all, that strikes me as infinitely more productive than anything gained from merely banning a book, or pulling a statue from its plinth.
The first draft of this essay was written after I’d read the news that HBO was removing Gone With the Wind from its library. The company’s handling of this move could have been smoother, with a little forethought given to messaging around their reasons for pulling the film. However, as I took this social prompt and considered the increasing number of similar, often apparently censorious removals of statues, movies, and television shows (books have been subject to this pressure for decades) and began writing, HBO released a statement.
I could not be happier with their approach to Gone With the Wind now. They plan to do exactly what I have advocated for in this piece – they are opening up the conversation and allowing more room for further information. HBO has offered us a clear example of how to get this right. Here’s a key part of that statement:
“[W]hen we return the film to HBO Max, it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those [racist] depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”
• Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton (1990)
• Jurassic Park, dir. Steven Spielberg (1993)
• Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1871)
• Confessions, Saint Augustine (circa 400 AD)