By: Rian Van Tassell.
Written as part of the First-Year Seminar “Dystopia on the Page, Stage, and Screen”
“Until one of them becomes a leader most will follow, or a tyrant most fear.” (Butler 103). In reading dystopian novels, one may begin to wonder why a character makes certain choices or realize that sometimes characters tend to play right into the hands of whatever force they’re most rebelling against. However, one may not notice that every character, whether they are aware of it or not, is under some element of thought control. But how much are their thoughts controlled? And are they able to think for themselves? Thought control can be defined as thoughts that are deliberately altered, a character’s thoughts being not of their own accord, and thoughts that occupy a character’s mind due to an outside force. In Parable of the Sower and the film Brazil, one can begin to see the ways characters are conditioned to think and what factors play into it, and whether or not characters can think for themselves or even control the thoughts of others. In many dystopian texts, and especially in Parable of the Sower and Brazil, characters have no control over their thoughts and are unaware that their thoughts are being controlled and their mindsets influenced.
Many factors play into thought control, and many ways that thoughts are controlled go largely unnoticed and have become so incredibly commonplace in these texts that, to their characters, they are very subtle. In fact, similar aspects and methods of thought control are applied in our reality, though at a much smaller scale. For example, in Brazil, as Jill and Sam are driving, the side of the highway is lined with advertisements. In addition to this, there are propaganda posters lining every wall, exclaiming things such as “Loose talk is noose talk” across a picture of lips sealed with a padlock and “Suspicion breeds confidence”. Things such as advertising and propaganda very easily make their way into one’s brain through power of suggestion as they’re omnipresent in both Brazil and in our reality. Another way this controls thought is through conditioning. Citizens learn to associate the advertising and propaganda-and in that, consumerism and the following of laws-with good citizenship and normal social behavior. Propaganda and advertising play into the use of media in influencing the actions of characters. In Parable of the Sower, the Yannis family has a somewhat steady source of income, charging people to watch the news and such on their Window. In addition to this, every family in Lauren’s community has a radio, and listens to the news, absorbing whatever information they can obtain.
However, in Parable of the Sower, media doesn’t seem to have such a grip on the minds of the characters. Early on, the Yannis’ Window ceases to function, and aside from the loss of income for the Yannis family, nobody is particularly broken up about it. When Lauren’s house is robbed during a fire, the thieves take the family’s radio. Lauren is much more upset over the loss of the sewing machine that was stolen than over the loss of the radio. She values the ability to make and fix clothing more than she values information or media. In Brazil, Sam seems to ignore the propaganda everywhere as he pursues Jill and allows Tuttle to continue to help him. Despite this though, the radio was worth enough to the thieves to steal in Parable, and when Lauren finds an earring that doubles as a radio, she cleans it and uses it. In Brazil, the workers in the Ministry of Information are invested in old TV shows that they view on their computers and they take in whatever they can when they’re not being watched.
In the 1980s, when Brazil was being produced and released, it was found that most citizens thought that advertising and media had become more biased and less reliable (Emmert). Gilliam uses this knowledge in making some of the media radical and extreme and showing that even though a lot of the media is extreme, the mass public still yields to it. He even uses it to show that media can be used as a blindfold in having the advertisement walls on the roads in Brazilthat blocks the view of the barren landscape beyond.
Along with media, there is the use of capitalism as thought control, especially in Brazil. In capitalist societies, one has to have money in order to survive. There’s a scene in Brazil where a sign proclaiming “Consumers for Christ” is visible, indicating that in order to be a good Christian, one has to participate in the capitalist/consumerist society. Another way that capitalism influences mind control is shown in that the characters (or their next of kin) have to pay for any type of information retrieval. This is the bigger factor in how capitalism controls thought, as the inability or distaste of having to pay for such a thing would force characters to keep their thoughts and actions in line. In Parable of the Sower, only the rich are safe. They are able to afford heavily armed guards and live in what seems to the underclass fortresses. In addition, the rich are able to keep pets and some buy women. This capitalist society controls the thoughts of the characters-especially the underclass-as the belief that through hard work and the earning of money, they will be able to purchase safety. This calls them even more towards the north. A big indication of how capitalism controls thought is through the giant corporation city of Olivar. They begin to try and recruit people from less well-off areas by promising work and safety. This immediately grips the mind of the Garfield family and Lauren’s best friend goes to work for Olivar. In reality, Olivar is most likely a place that utilizes debt slavery-“giving” characters shelter for work but eventually making it so their shelter and necessities put them in debt to the corporation so they can never leave and must continue working.
However, Lauren’s father saw through Olivar, not succumbing to the possibility of “work” there and keeping Cory from trying to apply. Another example of avoiding thought control in Parable is the fact that, in the end, Lauren and her group settled down, not in a city, but rather on Bankole’s property. They initially set out to go to a city in the north, believing that there would be more safety and opportunity in a city, but Lauren and the others come to the conclusion that cities are more dangerous even though the media and majority of society believes otherwise. Also, Sam initially refuses a promotion in his job in Brazil.Yet despite their best efforts, the group in Parable ends up growing crops to sell and Harry decides to continuously go into town in attempts to find a job, effectively still being controlled by capitalism.
Capitalism begins to become engrained in a society, and societal norms themselves can be used to control thought and influence actions. In Parable of the Sower, one can see many examples of how society itself molds the minds of the characters. One of the most evident forms is the toxic masculinity present in Lauren’s neighborhood. Keith, Lauren’s brother, leaves the safety of the walls and returns after being mugged. In response to his father’s angry question as to why he did such, Keith replies, “I’m a man! I shouldn’t be hiding in the house, hiding in the wall; I’m a man!” (Butler 91). Another example is the racism, especially evident in Mrs. Simms’ dislike of the Hsu family even though the Hsus brought her figs, peaches, and cloth after she was robbed.
One of the biggest techniques that often is used for thought control is fear. In Brazil, the posters are often vaguely threatening and the ministry of information uses fear tactics-such as the element of surprise, bursting into one’s place of residence by breaking windows and cutting through the ceiling, armed with weapons and then taking whomever they “need” by putting them in a straightjacket and covering their eyes-to keep citizens in line. Another way the government in Brazil uses fear is in having constant media covering the “terrorist” attacks. Though not explicitly started, it is unlikely that the attacks are actually terrorist movements. In fact, there is a conversation between Jill and Sam where Jill asks if Sam has ever met a terrorist after he tells her that he is protecting citizens. Sam is unable to confirm whether or not there are terrorists as he’s never dealt with any. Fear is one of the emotions that cause a very primal reaction and so many will do all that they can in order to avoid the panic that ensues when they’re being taken for “information retrieval.” In Parable of the Sower, the entire society that is portrayed is built on fear. Even before her neighborhood is burned away, Lauren is planning to leave the “safe” walls of her home. After she is forced from her home, she decides to follow the crowd of people flowing north as it is supposedly safer; Lauren and her group believe that there will be food, water, and the possibility of work.
Another method, present in Brazil more than Parable,is the use of surveillance. Any time Sam is in the Ministry of Information, there are several different technologies present that are used to watch all who enter. Gilliam may have chosen to include this to show a deep dislike of CCTV and constantly being watched and to warn others about what could happen. As stated in “Technologies of Control”, “The UK [has] experienced a massive growth in CCTV since the 1980s…” CCTV, otherwise known as closed circuit television, is an omnipresent surveillance system that watches all of the UK. Gilliam most likely believed that this was unnecessary and obnoxious and chose to express that through Brazil.
Another way to influence someone’s thoughts is through charismatic leadership. This is especially prevalent in Parable of the Sower as the main character becomes a charismatic leader and the developer of a new faith. Lauren, dressed as a man, initially exudes power and control, giving those in her care a sense of safety. And even once those around her know her to be female, she continues to have qualities of a charismatic leader that sways others to trust her. She shows that she is well educated on multiple occasions and is quick to make decisions. She also isn’t slow to help others or to offer emotional support. The others see these qualities of one who is trustworthy and so even though Lauren, for the most part, has no plan and doesn’t know what she’s doing, she has coerced the others to trust her and has drawn them in to Earthseed.
And with that comes the last form of thought control evident in both texts: religion. Though there is no government-imposed religion in either text, both insinuate that there is a popular or present religion that has significant influence over characters and their thoughts. In Brazil, it is evident in the sign “Consumers for Christ”, as well as the symbol of the cross and a somewhat religious ceremony for a death. A bigger implication of a Christian based faith in Brazil is the fact that, in Sam’s dreams, his alter ego is one of an angel. Additionally, Jill is portrayed as heavenly and pure with the white veil that flows around her in Sam’s visions. However, where this is more present and more significant is in Parable of the Sower. The main character creates a religion called Earthseed in which the “god” is the idea of change. “Earthseed does not advocate for a socially passive faith in which adherents blindly and obediently wait for heavenly rewards. Instead, it is a call to action: a belief that people can change their earthly fate as well as the destiny of the world through direct action.” (Tweedy) As characters believe wholeheartedly in this faith and in their charismatic leader, their thoughts are altered in order to adhere to this religion and to advocate for change. Although the characters in Parable are initially slow to pick up the religion, they begin to know parts of it by heart and will talk to any new “initiate” about it. Bankole, though he does not solidly believe in the Destiny of Earthseed, even offers his land to start the first Earthseed community, possibly due to Lauren’s inconspicuous implications that one must share her beliefs in order to join and be protected by the group.
Earthseed, however, is an example of how, in a dystopian text, a main character has control over her own thoughts as she develops her own ideas and creates an entire religion. And in doing such, she begins to have the ability to control other characters’ thoughts. Lauren breaks away from the Christian belief system in her community and has a very different view of “God”. Though she hides it from those in her neighborhood, she writes her thoughts in a journal, effectively documenting her break from the thought control that the neighborhood religion imposes. Once she begins to tell others, she is not swayed by their questions or initial disregard of Earthseed. Lauren may very well be one of the only characters to exist in a dystopian setting that doesn’t have an easily malleable mindset. Yet though she may seem strong and resistant, she still succumbs to fear.
“Until one of them becomes a leader most will follow, or a tyrant most fear.” (Butler 103). Fear and hope may very well be the biggest forms of thought control, gripping any conscious and sentient being. Many of the techniques use both fear and hope in their quest to influence the minds and actions of dystopian characters. Regardless, there are no examples in these two texts of anyone who can fully escape the grip that their surroundings have on their mind. They may struggle against it, find ways around it, or even find a way to make the minds of their companions malleable, but they always have the hooks of the dystopian forces in their brains, affecting their actions without their knowledge.
Tweedy, Clarence W. III. “The Anointed: Countering Dystopia with Faith in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sowerand Parable of the Talents.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, vol. 13 issue 1, 2014.
Nilges, Mathias. “‘We Need the Stars’: Change, Community, and the Absent Father in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sowerand Parable of the Talents.” Callaloo, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1332–1352. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27743152.
Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” A Forum on Fiction, 2002, pp. 299-311
Emmert, Fredric A. “I. Overview and the Print Media.” US Media in the 1990’s, http://www.4uth.gov.ua/usa/english/media/files/media1cd.htm. Accessed 19 October 2017.
“8.4 Surveillance and CCTV”, Technologies of Control, https://www.le.ac.uk/oerresources/criminology/msc/unit8/page_09.htm. Accessed 3 November 2017.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower,Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994
Brazil. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 20th Century Fox, 1985