Signet Essay Contest 2013
Torture, surveillance, brainwashing—all are present in George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984—yet, it is neither the ever present “Thought Police” nor the rabid mindless hate of Oceania’s citizens that is 1984‘s most frightening aspect. Rather it is the Party guided destruction of language as a medium of truth. While the ominous “Ministry of Love” implements traditional coercive techniques, it is the Party’s control of language that gives it unshakeable power. Countries can be overrun and empires fall, but language delineates a culture and with it a mode of thought. Accordingly the Party’s conversion of English into “Newspeak” is not about its control of a geographic area, but rather its successful transformation of humankind into a collection of obedient automatons. It serves as a warning that should not be taken lightly; especially when observing the parallel modern deterioration of language and the accompanying descent into mindlessness.
It is a natural and comforting assumption that such a change is impossible in a democratic society in which the Party’s wholesale use of terror and government surveillance does not exist. However, not fear but the human need for conformity and capacity for complacency is the Party’s most powerful tool. In lemming fashion, Oceania’s citizens readily embrace the three seemingly paradoxical slogans of the Party: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. Individual thought is smothered by activity; when members are “not working, eating, or sleeping,” they are expected to be “taking part in some kind of communal recreations” (82). Added to the mob mentality created daily by the Two Minutes of Hate, which as Winston Smith describes “creates a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness” that turns “one even against one’s will into a grimacing screaming lunatic” (14) it is not surprising that the members of the Party become passive followers.
In turn this complacent state makes them susceptible to the Party’s complex system of language misuse that includes propaganda and emotional manipulation. Every use of language by Party members works to glorify the Party and demonize its enemies—from subtle product naming to barefaced misinformation. Victory Mansions connote prosperity even though in reality there is “nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin” (59), while misinformation gives the Party license “to attribute an endless catalogue of atrocities” (180) to its enemies. Citizens unquestioningly accept even the most ridiculous party line, which empowers the Party to literally redefine its misdeeds. State-mandated euphemisms, such as “to rectify” (38) disguise the real processes of maintaining the state’s dominance while keeping neutral or positive associations.
The conversion of the English language to Newspeak is merely a formalization of this process. As stated by Symes, a specialist working on Newspeak’s creation, the “whole aim of Newspeak is to limit the range of thought” (52) or in other words codify the Party’s brand of insanity. In effect it removes the need for the aforementioned system. While Julia, the protagonist’s fellow rebel and lover, is unable to imagine “such a thing as an independent political movement” (153) with the complete implementation of Newspeak basic concepts such as liberty and equality would be inaccessible. Under Newspeak these concepts would be “contained in the single word crimethink” (305), effectively undoing the labors of every philosopher in recorded history and cementing the Party’s ideological victory. Indeed, Newspeak even eliminates the threat posed by fragments of the past that survive the Party’s censorship as they “would be unintelligible and untranslatable” (311) to a populace that speaks only Newspeak. In essence Newspeak is the embodiment of the subtlest and most effective form of mind control, which not only changes thoughts but modifies their inner nature.
Although Newspeak is an extreme distortion of language absent in modern times, Orwell’s 1984 is not pure abstraction. It is meant as a cautionary tale. Restrictive regimes such as North Korea may make headlines, but the same warped euphemisms employed in 1984 can be observed in Western media. The fact that this has remained largely unnoticed exposes our own capacity for complacency. For example, a Washington Post article last year reported on the creation of a “disposition matrix”. Belying its innocuous name the “disposition matrix” is basically a hit list—a compilation of assassination targets for the executive branch of the government. In choosing to refer to it as a “disposition matrix” the government effectively conceals its true purpose just as the Party refers to its own system for executing its enemies as the “Ministry of Love.” The difference is we do not live under a totalitarian government; the real meaning is freely available, yet no public outcry has been raised. This lack of thought extends to our economic activities. In almost all advertisements one will uncover vague phrases such the “best product on the market” and “expert-approved.” These phrases are devoid of meaning, entailing only a nebulous positive connotation, but again though we are far from the regimented drones of the Party we swallow these obfuscations meekly.
A democracy is dependent on an educated citizenry that makes decisions independently and can express themselves. We are not in the nightmarish world of 1984, but with continued apathy and a blind acceptance of what is portrayed in the media, we may find ourselves on a slippery slope. If we choose not to research candidates, learn about policy issues, or question the status quo, then no other options remain but to trust Big Brother.
For information on the 2013-2014 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.