An explication of a single line of Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick As A Brick’

‘My word’s but a whisper, your deafness a shout’.

It’s the second line of Jethro Tull’s famous ‘Thick as a Brick’, the concept album with one song that lasts 45 minutes over two vinyl sides. Released in ’72, the golden year of prog. Absolutely excellent stuff, proper progressive rock. But there’s a deeper meaning to be found here.

The second line essentially defines the rest of the conflict to come in the lyrics – all the pen-sheathing and sword-drawing and comic-paper heroes and so on are derived from this simple statement of relative volume, quite fitting for its formatting as music. (Especially since Tull can pull the trick of playing an incredibly loud and disruptive guitar chord immediately after the word ‘shout.’ It’s the small stuff that counts.)

Anderson’s point is that ideology deafens us. Frameworks diminish the impact of information that challenges or isn’t relevant to them. ‘Your deafness [is] a shout,’ means that it’s possible to tell more about a person by what they ignore than what they pay attention to. By noting what they ignore, you define the limits of the framework through which they perceive the world. And of course that’s a simple point and very obvious; I’m just impressed at how he’s pithily condensed such an awkward-sounding truth into such an aesthetic phrase. I’d call it almost Biblically laconic.

But Anderson, taking the side of the youth in Thick As A Brick, has ignored a vital point, which is that the youth is subject to the same problem as the adult. Both sides of an argument are subject to this fallacy, and it’s not always clear which is in the ‘right’. I didn’t write this piece to harp on the differences between the old and the young, the conservative and the liberal, the punk and the prog. But it seems mildly unfair for the younger voice to get all the positive coverage.

A good example of the ‘deafness being louder than the shout’ is the controversy surrounding James Damore’s internal Google memo, circulated some months ago. Whether you agree with the stipulations set out within or not, the points made about the ideological homogeneity of Google employees and their complete dismissal of alternative perspectives were demonstrated largely in the majority reaction to the article. Calls were made for the author to be fired, and public debate rages on twitter to this sorry day.

People calling for Damore’s loss of a platform and job apparently completely missed the irony of their situations, and  demonstrably proved that they hadn’t read the damn document. Despite the stupidity of this reaction to what was actually a well-written, respectful, and rather tentative step into questioning the dogma, opposition to Damore remains the mainstream viewpoint. In the news (always in the news) his words were described as an ‘anti-diversity screed’. Hence the deafness – the complete ignorance of his point – being louder than the message.

This only serves as an example of that one line. But we should avoid taking it to mean that Ian Anderson would sympathise with those specific politics, obviously; the line is archetypal, it’s the most basic expression of its idea. It can be applied to events on any side of any relevant debate.

In the case of James Damore it’s important to remember that his ideas aren’t as alternative as the media sphere makes them out to be, and of course there were hundreds of people almost hoping for the exact reaction the article received, because it only proved their point. There were people actively waiting for James Damore to be victimised, and they honestly believed they were on his side. That’s the power of ideology. Those people were just as deaf as the ones who completely misread the memo.

That’s why you have to treat this phrase carefully – it’s not always clear who the ‘deaf’ one is in a given situation.

A quick note: the reason Socrates said he knew nothing is because he knew that his preconceived ideas were apt to be challenged by reality changing. This is child’s wisdom, for the love of God. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes – if one theorises without all the prior knowledge ‘one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’ And Socrates knew that he didn’t have all the available information about anything – see the notes on Wittgenstein and Russell last week – so he refrained from calling himself wise and attached to himself the disclaimer of knowing nothing.

In any case, is it hypocrisy for Anderson’s character in this concept album to call the elder generation out on having an excessively restrictive framework, if he himself admits that his own contribution to the discussion is rather weak? Thus far we’ve only talked about the second clause of this line, and now it’s time we moved on to the first, although it won’t take anywhere near as long to understand.

Anderson is calling his own words ‘a whisper.’ It’s difficult to break the hold ideology has over someone who’s completely fallen for a set of ideas. It’s by necessity a quiet, subversive voice, because a loud argument won’t convince anyone of the opposite view, no matter how persuasive. Damore probably won’t convince anyone, really, but that’s not because his argument is flawed. They’re trapped by ideology, and the only way people’s minds are changed is if they’re exposed to evidence over a long-term period and have a stake in the situation. Culture – the ‘education of attention’ – is too ingrained and too persuasive to be changed by something as malleable as a good argument.

Ultimately, Thick As A Brick is about two different ways of structuring the world. It does go on a bit, doesn’t it, at 42 minutes? But everything you need to know about the next three-quarters of an hour of music, in terms of themes, is contained within the first 20 seconds.

Very clever, that.

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