1984: An Alarming Reality
“The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not the power over things, but over men.” (Orwell, p. 279). The chilling words from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 linger long after closing the book. Published in 1949, during turbulent times, the book cautions the many weaknesses of humankind and how they are exploited through the likes of propaganda and media. In Orwell’s fictional world, the characters are manipulated by the government every day, which has an immense effect on their psyche. How does the influence of language and media affect the characters in 1984?
In the bombed streets of Air Strip one, Oceania, lives comrade Winston Smith. Oceania is a subjugating society where Big Brother, a paragon figure to the people, keeps the residents under perpetual surveillance. Love and freedom of speech are prohibited, even language is being restrained. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, where he is instructed to rewrite history according to Party guidelines. The function alleviates a society founded on hatred and a thirst for power. Winston desires to overthrow the totalitarian regime. He initiates a love affair with Julia, an act of desire and rebellion. They decide to pledge their allegiance to the resistance, hoping to change the course of the present before it is too late.
Understanding how to exploit language to further one’s agenda is prominently featured in 1984. The Inner Party does exactly this, imposing the ideology of the Party onto the people by wielding the power of language. Mastering such techniques entails control over people’s understanding of situations, concepts and overall perception in 1984. What the Party proclaims to be veracious is a heavy revision of reality. For instance, in the case of the ministry departments, the deliberate naming of these branches prompts implications that steer far from their actual functions. For example, The Ministry of Truth, according to the Party, “… concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts.” (p.8)
In practice, the department devises propaganda and rewrites both the past and the present to fit the Party’s viewpoint. It is an oxymoron, an instrument that enforces lies rather than truth. The other three branches follow the same formula. The Ministry of Peace engages in warfare, The Ministry of Plenty manages economic shortages and The Ministry of Love executes punishments and torture. The word choice is concealing the true horrors being conducted inside the ministries. This affiliation between the two opposites communicates to the citizens that they are, in fact, not opposites at all. In a society where the Party’s words are law, these claims diminish the value of the concepts. Love, peace, truth and plenty become notions without real meaning. Moreover, when advancing the official language of Oceania, called Newspeak, the Party largely favors abbreviations. Accordingly, the ministries are referred to by non-threatning shortened names, “… in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.” (p.8). It relieves some of the impact of a perhaps more pertinent word choice, neutralizing a harsh reality with amiable language.
The premise of the Ministries may be an allusion to the exaggerated use of abbreviations by totalitarian regimes prior to World War II, where terms like Nazi, Gestapo, Komintern, Inprecorr, and Agitprop became customary in political language. From a dictatorial perspective, an acronym cannot hold the same amount of information as a complete term. Its compressed form offers fewer impulsive associations while increasing its ambiguity and therefore also its inclination to corruption. Orwell offers his own thoughts on the matter in the Appendix of 1984: “It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.” (p.386).
The practice of subtle manipulation is also consistent throughout other areas of Oceania’s society. The media relies on their ability to convince people of falsehood rather than facts. Their intended purpose is to inform citizens of truths, but as Orwell expresses concern for, it is not the case. Journalism is partial, which also makes for an efficient tool of propaganda when abused. Such a premise implicates great responsibility. In 1984, this privilege is exploited to keep the citizens oppressed.
People are told what to believe through altering and regulating what information they have access to, leaving them with no tangible proof to entrench a reality outside of the Party’s constraint. As Winston ponders, “For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?” (p.22). Therefore, the media does not require facts to convey their message but depend instead on their ability to mold the public’s opinions. Those who disagree with the official statements and exercise free thought, like Winston, pose a threat to the system.
This phenomenon is in no way unique to the novel. Rather, the conniving method has its roots based historical events. Especially noticeable are the similarities between Oceania and Right-wing-Nazi Germany. First, the Nazi regime in Germany became successful in converting Germany into a one-party dictatorship. Then, they initiated a comprehensive propaganda campaign to gain the devotion and cooperation of Germans. The article “Nazi Propaganda and Censorship” par. 2 recounts that “The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, took control of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings, and rallies, art, music, movies, and radio. Viewpoints in any way threatening to Nazi beliefs or to the regime were censored or eliminated from all media.” A notorious incident that followed this reasoning was the book burning that occurred on May 10th, 1933, in Germany. More than 25 000 books were destroyed that night, the idea was to eradicate any literature with ideas that differed from the regime’s own tenets. According to the article “Hitler Seizes Power” par. 2, Propaganda minister Goebbels justified it as a “Säuberung” or “cleansing of the German spirit”. In a society where literature is regulated by the oppressors, limiting the population’s access to only the dictatorship’s own philosophies will ensure their receptiveness to propaganda. As stated in 1984, “The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion.” (p. 214). The ruling powers narrowed the broad range of books to only what would strengthen the people’s obedience and love for their leader, whether that be Hitler or Big Brother.
One of the primary motifs of 1984 is the concern that the misuse of media and journalism, as means of propaganda, will lead to the loss of individual critical thinking. Already, the act of conferring has been banned, as well as having heretical thoughts, referred to as thoughtcrime. Furthermore, the civilians’ access to literature is also strictly governed. However, by also removing the right to communicate intellectually through writing, the ability of articulation is suppressed almost entirely, leaving people particularly susceptible to influence. Nevertheless, this intrinsic need of expression does not vanish completely but rather weakens. This is at least true in Winston’s case, and is demonstrated when he buys a diary overcome with an urgency to “… transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head…for years.” (p. 8).
All the same, once Winston is ready to write, anxiety overcomes him. He contemplates that “It was curious that he seemed not merely to have lost the power of expressing himself, but even to have forgotten what it was that he had originally intended to say.” (p. 9). As all information is passed through telescreens, there is little use in composing matters by hand. However, once this hindrance diminishes, he begins to ramble about a movie he saw the other day. It becomes apparent that the quality of Winston’s writing has been severely affected: “His small but childish handwriting straggled up and down the page, shedding first its capital letters and finally even its full stops.” (p. 10). It is only later in the book, after tenacious retraining, that Winston’s diary entries read eloquently. It becomes apparent that the stifling force of indoctrination damages peoples’ self-expression and must be fought against to be regained. The Party wants this skill to perish, and such method of restriction is one reason why it appears to prevail.
In the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ par. 24, Orwell writes that “If thoughts can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thoughts.” As language bounds thought, no thought can develop without language to formulate it. Therefore, with a lack of fitting words, the thoughts themselves become lacking. By this logic, if one shrinks the vocabulary of a language, one should also be able to restrain thought. This was the concept which would later engender the idea of Newspeak. Orwell then proceeds to lament about the declining state of the English language, giving examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction and meaningless words. He emphasizes that such aspects of a language contribute to a paucity of coherent and structured thinking. Nearing the end of his essay par. 25, Orwell deliberates on the subject:
“I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words or constructions.”
Newspeak in 1984 is unmistakably Orwell’s way of portraying a situation where the corruption of language is intentionally exploited to tyrannize its speakers. Through his work, Orwell depicts an oligarchy where control of language has a strong political agenda. English succumbs to Newspeak, which has both restrictive grammar and vocabulary, tolerating only simple dichotomies. The evolution of the English language, on the other hand, is quite the opposite to that of Newspeak. In the case of ‘Oldspeak’, the introduction of new terminology is a natural and welcomed process to broaden the consciousness and insight of its speakers. The Party’s preventive measures to halt this progression include the renewal of dictionaries every year, each version with fewer expressions. Winston’s coworker Syme, who works on the refinements of the eleventh edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells him that “… the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” (p.23)
Hence language becomes a medium for the doctrine of INGSOC, all while removing even the possibility of unorthodoxy. This exemplification of his statement in ‘Politics and the English Language’ emerges as one of the central messages of the book: A government that designs and mandates language holds great power over the population’s minds.
George Orwell proposes an alarming reality, substantiating that both language and media are parlous tools of influence. The Party dictates what information people have access to through media and what is to be stated in it, thus being able to supplement it with a myriad of propaganda. The language itself is designed to decrease the capability of crimethink, leaving only words suitable to the doctrines of the totalitarian government. These conditions make for a suffocating reality, without any reliability or permanence, apart from the immortality of Big Brother. Without expression and thought, one becomes defenseless and a subject to manipulation. In the end, “We shall be utterly without power of any kind.” (p. 157)