George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is widely regarded as a piece of political prophecy. Since the novel was published in 1949, the terms Orwellian and Big Brother and the date 1984 have become household terms evoking images of a nightmarish totalitarian state whose guardians ruthlessly suppress the least expression of individuality and cynically operate on the principle that power is to be pursued for its own sake. Not surprisingly, with the real 1984 just around the corner, there have appeared in the past year a good many discussions of Orwell's famous work.
While Nineteen Eighty-Four's totalitarianism is not the rule in the West, many of Orwell's predictions, especially about the development of technological devices that pose a potential threat to personal privacy and international peace, are amazingly accurate. In recent decades, advances in both surveillance and weaponry have surpassed even Orwell's forecasts. Certainly, impersonal bureaucratic structures have become the organizational model for our times. The computer revolution has brought us to the age of information management, while centralization in the media industry limits diversity of opinion and political debate on public issues. And Orwell's vision of global politics—ever-shifting alliances among three superpowers locked in nuclear stalemate and engaged in continuous war for limited aims in faraway places—seems more plausible every year.
But while Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is filled with predictions about collectivization and conformity, militarism and media manipulation, two-way telescreens and torture, it also raises compelling questions about history, language, and truth. A reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four can surely help us to identify the threats to personal freedom posed by government data banks and improved behavior-modification techniques, but Orwell's little book can do much more.
In an attempt to clarify the purpose of his popular novel (which has been in print continuously since its publication) Orwell wrote, "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe…that something resembling it could arrive." So Orwell's work is not so much an attempt to predict a particular future society as it is a warning. The society depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four is especially horrible not just because of its technology but because its leadership had discovered a way to go beyond the suppression of rebellion, to make even the thought of rebellion impossible.
The underlying assumption of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that the extent to which humans can be controlled has no limit. By contrast, our own heritage of political liberty is grounded in an 18th-century view of human nature as essentially free and rational. Human beings are moral agents: capable of choice, and able to identify connections between cause and effect, we are therefore responsible for our choices. The self-ruled, rational, responsible person is the cornerstone of democratic theory.
But in Orwell's dystopia, this concept of human nature has been discarded, and individuals are held to be infinitely malleable. Can loyalty be elicited simply by employing the correct stimulus-response mechanism? Will the proper conditioning produce a complacent citizenry? Orwell suggests that individuals can be effectively controlled through such techniques as the systematic distortion of language and willful manipulation of information about the past.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the leaders of Oceania continuously redefine truth to meet the changing needs of the Party. For example, when the chocolate ration must be decreased, it is announced as an increase so that citizens will be pleased with prosperity rather than frustrated by scarcity. What is most shocking is not the audacity of a regime that distorts truth—we who remember the "inoperative statements" of the Nixon years no longer blanch at audacity—but rather the gullible reaction of citizens to implausible or illogical statements. How can this state assure the complicity of its people? The answer lies in the Orwellian horror called doublethink.
Orwell describes doublethink as "to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out." Doublethink involves training in thought control. Moments after a public announcement that Oceania is allied with an enemy and at war with an ally, it is the case that the friend has always been an enemy and the enemy a friend. Doublethink severs the links between cause and effect that form the basis for conscious choice and hence for moral action. Once we block out past and future, only the present remains. And where there is no possibility for comparison or contrast, relative judgments cannot be made. This is how truth becomes whatever Big Brother tells us is true.
The success of doublethink also rests upon the ability of the Party to control past records. Winston Smith, the doomed protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, works in the Ministry of Truth, where as a minor Party functionary he participates in rewriting history. Smith commits many acts of rebellion in Orwell's tale, but the crime that dooms him is his ability to remember the past. Smith knows that the Party alters history; he knows too that alternatives to the present world are at least imaginable. Winston Smith simply refuses to be taken in by doublethink. By the end of the story, after capture, torture, and defeat, he loves Big Brother and agrees (literally) that two plus two equals five. While doublethink is grounded on the falsification of history, it also relies on the ultimate weapon: mental terror.
Doublethink is not the only tool used in Oceania to control people's perceptions of reality. An entirely new language—Newspeak—has been created, and it involves the systematic distortion of language. Winston Smith's friend Syme, who is preparing an updated edition of a Newspeak dictionary, delights in the prospect of purifying Oldspeak (our English). He tells Smith, "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to limit the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
Many terms in Newspeak mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. The Ministry of Peace is the Ministry of War, while the Ministry of Love, with its prison cells and tortures, is the home of the Thought Police. We undoubtedly have incorporated elements of Newspeak into our contemporary American vocabulary. Bombing is now referred to as "air support," a strike is a "job action," a tax increase is "revenue enhancement," and an economic recession is a "period of accelerated negative growth." Our propensity for doublespeak has been probed in works ranging from Stuart Chase's classic The Tyranny of Words and Edwin Newman's popular Strictly Speaking to Sissela Bok's recent book, Lying.
Orwell exposes the pernicious effects of a distorted vocabulary when he explains the principles of Newspeak. He relates the rationale for purging Oldspeak of unwanted elements: "Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for such a word as bad, since the required meaning was equally well—indeed, better—expressed by ungood." In such a language it would be impossible to recognize evil, since it would be nameless. If the word freedom were redefined to mean only "rid of," freedom of thought and political freedom would be unthinkable. With the distortion and ultimate elimination of moral concepts from our vocabulary, we reduce human awareness; and by producing a single reaction to words, we narrow the range of thought.
The warning from Orwell is that inattention to the politics of language can lead us to deaden the power of imagination and destroy the possibility of conceptualizing alternatives altogether. To a certain extent, current reliance on "diminished-capacity" or insanity-defense pleas in criminal trials may represent just the sort of distortion about which Orwell warns. Will widespread resort to such pleas eventually eliminate the concept of responsibility from our justice system?
Orwell recognized that intellectuals are particularly prone to engage in doublethink. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith's torturers "were not ruffians in black uniforms but Party intellectuals." And Orwell characterizes O'Brien, head of the Thought Police, as a man with "an air of intellectuality, as though he had been some sort of literary man."
Why this distrust of intellectuals and ideologues? In a letter written in 1949, Orwell was straightforward about his fears. He wrote, "I believe…that totalitarian ideas have taken roots in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical conclusion." Orwell was appalled by the failure of British intellectuals on the left to condemn equally the fascism of Hitler and Stalin. Orwell's own experiences in Spain fighting against the fascist forces of Franco (which he relates in a riveting account, Homage to Catalonia) had exposed the ruthless cynicism of communist factions supporting the Republican cause in that conflict.
So Orwell had little patience with the rationalizations of intellectuals who could ignore or explain away inconvenient facts and unpleasant events. When intellectuals invest their integrity and prestige in a system of thought or partisan activity, Orwell suggested, they are likely to fall prey to a sort of moral blindness. As Winston Smith's friend Syme tells us, "Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
What Orwell perceived when writing Nineteen Eighty-Four no doubt persists. On a blatant level, the French Communist Party's refusal to condemn the Soviets' recent downing of the Korean jetliner is a case in point. But on a more subtle level, US foreign policy represents a similar moral ambiguity. On the one hand, that orthodoxy poses the United States as a champion of freedom. Yet that same orthodoxy has come to equate freedom with anticommunism, leading policymakers ironically to uphold repressive right-wing regimes in the name of securing world peace and freedom.
What is Orwell's prognosis? Will future generations be fully adapted to the successful working of a system run by a few clear-sighted power-seekers while the many (Orwell's proles) become incapable of thought and preoccupied with problems of mere survival? Will those who cherish intellectual and political freedom become ineffectual malcontents, irrelevant anachronisms, like Winston Smith?
Orwell's warning is that 1984 is a state of mind. He believed that "totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere." And so, it will be 1984 only when we become victims of our own slogans. As long as we can pursue and maintain the widest possible opportunities for choice, we will be able to recognize evil, injustice, and repression, preserve our independence of thought, and fortify the foundations of our political freedoms.
Virginia Muller teaches political science at the University of San Diego. She recently participated in a five-part program on Orwell for cable television.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Doublethinking Our Way to 1984".