Reading is Dangerous

“What’s so dangerous about sitting down and reading a book?” you ask. “That’s probably one of the safest things you can do!”

Well, that depends on what you’re reading.

And no, I don’t mean that thrillers are somehow more dangerous to read than romance novels are. In fact, both those genres are relatively innocuous and predictable. Barring all plot twists, the hero will somehow prevail at the end, and the guy will get the girl (or vice versa).

Some books are inherently dangerous, though. You read them and run the risk of your whole worldview being thrown on its ear. Some are as startling as a splash of cold water in your face. Others feel more like a punch to the gut. And still others will slowly tug on your heartstrings until the tension is unbearable.

This past week, I started reading a classic called Propaganda by Edward Bernays. In it, Bernays breaks down how a very few select people can determine how the majority thinks. He uses the fashion industry as an example.

Business offers graphic examples of the effect that may be produced upon the public by interested groups, such as textile manufacturers losing their markets. This problem arose, not long ago, when the velvet manufacturers were facing ruin because their product had long been out of fashion. Analysis showed that it was impossible to revive a velvet fashion within America. Anatomical hunt for the vital spot! Paris! Obviously! But yes and no. Paris is the home of fashion. Lyons is the home of silk. The attack had to be made at the source. It was determined to substitute purpose for chance and to utilize the regular sources for fashion distribution and to influence the public from these sources. A velvet fashion service, openly supported by the manufacturers, was organized. Its first function was to establish contact with the Lyons manufactories and the Paris couturiers to discover what they were doing, to encourage them to act on behalf of velvet, and to help in the proper exploitation of their wares. An intelligent Parisian was enlisted in the work. He visited Lanvin and Worth, Agnes and Patou, and others and induced them to use velvet in their gowns and hats. It was he who arranged for the distinguished Countess This or Duchess That to wear the hat or the gown. And as for the presentation of the idea to the public, the American buyer or the American woman of fashion was simply shown the velvet creations in the atelier of the dressmaker or the milliner. She bought the velvet because she liked it and because it was in fashion. 
      The editors of the American magazines and fashion reporters of the American newspapers, likewise subjected to the actual (although created) circumstance, reflected it in their news, which, in turn, subjected the buyer and the consumer here to the same influences. The result was that what was at first a trickle of velvet became a flood. A demand was slowly, but deliberately, created in Paris and America. A big department store, aiming to be a style leader, advertised velvet gowns and hats on the authority of the French couturiers, and quoted original cables received from them. The echo of the new style note was heard from hundreds of department stores throughout the country which wanted to be style leaders too. Bulletins followed despatches. The mail followed the cables. And the American woman traveler appeared before the ship news photographers in velvet gown and hat. 
      The created circumstances had their effect. “Fickle fashion has veered to velvet,” was one newspaper comment. And the industry in the United States again kept thousands busy. 

Edward Bernays, Propaganda

Most would agree that this is a fairly harmless example. The scary realization is that people can (and have, and do) use these same tactics to manipulate public opinion in more serious areas such as politics, economics, and religion.

This begs the question: Are your opinions really your own? If not, who has dictated them to you?

This is what I call a “red pill” book.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Matrix, you’ll recall that there is a scene in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) is offered a choice between two pills by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus holds a red pill and a blue pill out to Neo. If Neo takes the red pill, he will be whisked away to the real reality and see things for what they actually are (and they aren’t that great). If he takes the blue pill, he will go back to “ordinary” life inside The Matrix, the computer simulation he lives within, where ignorance is bliss.

(Side note: The concept of The Matrix originates in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which you can read in his work The Republic. You owe it to yourself to at least brush up on the Allegory of the Cave.)

We have access to so much information, now more than ever before, thanks to the Internet. More and more books are published every year. And yet, so much of what’s online and in bookstores is merely meant to coddle us, reinforce our beliefs, or—at worst—blatantly deceive us.

The worst part is that most people continue to buy into this. They don’t bother to ask the “what if…” or “why…” questions. They don’t actively seek out information that could change the way they think. Ignorance truly is bliss.

When I was visiting the University of Texas at Austin campus during a high-school trip, I saw a striking inscription on the main building: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The quote comes from John 8:32, when Jesus is talking to Jews who have believed in him. (Though as you read the full chapter, it will become clear how much the Jews actually “believe.”) In the broader context, Jesus says that people are either enslaved to sin or freed by the Son (John 8:34-36).

While the last thing I want to do is take Christ’s words—or any Bible passage—out of context, I took those words quoted on that building to mean that all truth sets us free. We are freed from the shackles of sin by Christ; we are also freed from the fetters of falsehood by truth.

Or, to put it another way: Christ is truth, and anything that is true is allied with him. All else is falsehood.

Paul has an interesting admonition in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8, English Standard Version (emphasis added)

Paul tells the Philippians that they should think about, among other things, whatever is true. How do we know what is true?

Pilate asked Jesus a similar question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). While it’s impossible to know whether he was being honest or sarcastic, it’s ironic that he asks this while putting Truth on trial.

Do we put truth on trial? We should. I believe we owe it to ourselves and certainly to God to do so.

We should honestly and objectively examine what we hold to be true lest we spend our days living a lie.

We’re blessed to live in an era where information abounds. Truth is out there, and I believe it’s even easier to find now than it ever was before, even despite the misinformation and disinformation (propaganda?) that pervades these days.

It’s not politically correct to question. Many times it’s not even “socially acceptable.” But it is necessary.

So read dangerously. Read the Bible. Read guys like Plato and Bernays. Read about science, economics, and history. Read things that will challenge what you hold to be true. Think about these truth claims and test them for veracity.

God gave you a mind for thinking; use it! Don’t let others think for you. Don’t let long-held beliefs and assumptions hold you captive if they aren’t valid. Take the red pill.

Seek the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Seek the Truth, and He shall set you free.


Find Propaganda by Edward Bernays here on Amazon or free to read online here.


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