LESSONS FROM ORWELL’S 1984
Arguably, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is among the most important works in 20th-century English literature. If you have not read 1984, you should, or at least put it on your must-read list. While it would be ideal if you read it now (I think the text is freely available online), I am strongly recommending it, not formally assigning it. Alternatively, if you want to get a handle on the story, a film version starring John Hurt produced and released in 1984 to lackluster reviews gets the job done. For those unfamiliar with the book, Orwell offers a critique of Oceania, an authoritarian socialist society, one of three mega-nation-states encompassing the globe. Oceania operates under a centralized government which oversees a socialist, crisis-driven but low-yield economy–yes, people live in poverty, for the most part. Government-generated propaganda keeps the society in a perpetual state of war with the two other nation-states (Eurasia and Eastasia, which are governed by similarly structured authoritarian regimes), and helps secure the loyalty and compliance of the essentially proletarian population. As “Big Brother,” the government has eyes and ears everywhere, always watching, actively managing culture and restricting public discourse, and silencing dissent. Disguised as society’s benevolent champion, the government ruthlessly controls the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of individual members of the society. Stripped of their individuality, privacy, political and personal autonomy, prohibited from forming meaningful relationships with others, and constantly subjected to state-approved misinformation, people in 1984 are unable to even imagine resisting or rebelling against Big Brother, or the oppressive regime of Oceania. A key component of the system of social control in Orwell’s fictional society is Newspeak, a derivative form of speaking and writing imposed gradually on the people, a language pared down to its bones in service to efficiency (a value) and clarity, and that ultimately limits the flexibility, expressiveness and growth of language, and thus inhibits thought itself.
Published in 1949, 1984 warns of the threat of socialism creeping toward totalitarianism, and of its tendency to concentrate power in a ruling oligarchy supported by a corruptible bureaucracy–represented by the iconic, omnipresent, always watchful “Big Brother,” the creepy inspiration for the reality TV show popular in the 1990s and early 2000s in which a group of young people lived together in a shared house, their activities and interactions observed and recorded 24/7 by all-seeing cameras. Bureaucratic Big Brother wields enormous authority in public and private spheres of existence, doling out sparse benefits, punishing non-compliance with rules and laws, and requiring demonstrations of fealty from loyalists. Orwell argues forcefully that such a society kills imagination, with devastating consequences for humanity and its future. Strangely, what was written as a critique of fascist and communist movements of the early 20th century seems today to read as if it is a critique of late 20th-century/early 21st-century capitalist societies; yes, even a critique of American society and culture. Orwell’s description of the technological surveillance of citizens seems particularly accurate as a description of modern social controls in developed Western democracies, blurring the lines between the “free” capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America and the Communist and fascist states of the middle east and Asia. So let’s explore the importance of language and its relationship to culture and social structure with a guided tour of Newspeak, provided by Orwell himself in the Appendix to 1984:
Download “The Principles of Newspeak” by George Orwell (PDF)
You can download a copy of the appendix here or find it online. I have also included a scholarly article that might be helpful, but is not necessarily required:
Shadi, Mehran. 2018. “The Principles of Newspeak, or How Language Defines Reality in Orwell’s 1984,” Journal of International Social Research, October 2018. Your assignment: Based on this and other readings, and drawing upon what you have learned about culture, institutions and social structure, I would like you to have a conversation with another student in this class (or in another section of this class) around this theme: What is Orwell saying about language? about the relationship between language and society? between language and freedom itself? Read through the following prompts. Use them to start or guide your conversation, although you need not address every single prompt in your conversation. This of this as a two-way interview, each of your asking questions of the other, and answering the questions the other poses to you.
IMPORTANT: You will need to find an interesting story in the exchange, something newsworthy, something sociological. You will not have to publish the entire conversation. CONVERSATION STARTERS FOR THIS ASSIGNMENT We know that there are people both on the political right and on the left who are frightened by the future, and feel democracy and freedom are threatened by various political and social movements. What can be done to protect American or Western society from these threats, and against an ever-expanding and increasingly powerful “Big Brother”? Or are we overreacting? What are the historical forces at work in our world today that might make “Big Brother” a reality? Why do so many conservatives become so rabid at the very thought of universal healthcare, or see Barack Obama and Joe Biden as embodiments of anti-Americanism? Why are liberals so convinced that Donald Trump is a threat to democracy and the very fabric of American life? We have to wonder if either side’s claims have any merit–do they?
Americans tend to assume that “Big Brother” will arise from corrupt government, but what if the logic of Big Brother is capitalism, and Big Brother himself represents the interests of corrupt corporations? Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that possibility, given the globalization of capitalism? People constantly blame “the media” for the corruption of American politics, and it certainly seems that once Fox News became the unashamed mouthpiece of the Republican Party, partisan reporting became unavoidable for nearly all outlets. But really: Do politicians use media? or does media use politicians? Thoughtful answers will likely reveal who is really manipulating the masses. What do you think? Some might argue that it is not even possible anymore to imagine politics as the “art of the possible,” or the art of compromise. Indeed, our politicians appear ignorant and brutish, seem to have no sense of nuance, and legislate by bullying and namecalling rather than negotiation. What has driven the change in the language of politics over the past few decades? Is that language more broad and imaginative or more narrow and inflexible, today? What does this change mean when it comes to speech, political will, or imagination? Just as Oceania was always at war with either Eurasia or Eastasia, it seems our political parties are poised to go for the throat in dogfight after meaningless dogfight in the coming years. These spectacles arguably will keep the average American in a state of agitated uncertainty, while members of the political elite in Washington will retain their power and position without having to actually do anything to improve the lives of those Americans they claim to serve. In Orwell’s 1984, leaders were liars, and the entire social structure was built to sustain and amplify their lies. Do American politicians lie? What social processes help to sustain and/or amplify the lies of our leaders today? In Orwell’s novel, 1984, language represents just one facet of social control exercised by the powerful to keep the masses in line. Do you see evidence of similar strategies of social control in our society today? Is this social control the result of purposive actions or directives from powerful groups in society, or is it an emergent property of an evolving culture?
Discuss, please. Spirited debate is encouraged. Try to remain as objective as you can, to think beyond current partisan politics, though admittedly, partisan positions cannot be entirely ignored, so reveal your biases if necessary. After it is over, select the most interesting part of the discussion to present. Write a summary lead that contextualizes the conversation, plus a paragraph or two wherein you identify your conversation partner and describe the subject of your talk or segment of it. Write up your conversation more or less as a script; as one might present a play, or an interview. I recommend (1) recording your discussion (you can do this as a text exchange or verbally, but the verbal option means transcription); then (2) each of you editing the transcript of conversation (or a part of it) for clarity and content, interest and length; then (3) indicating a selection from it that you want to publish in your publications. Remember that students usually set aside only one page in their publication for this. You probably cannot publish the entire conversation, so you will need to cut it down to fit the space, but it still must tell a story. Do not be afraid to edit, but do NOT change meaning or misrepresent the speaker or the conversation overall. C
LESSONS FROM ORWELL’S 1984