Why it’s beginning to feel like ‘1984’
Written in the aftermath of World War II, George Orwell’s famous novel, “1984,” paints a dystopic vision of the future. The world is in a constant state of war. Oceania, the superstate where the protagonist Winston Smith lives is controlled by a Party with a near-omnipresent, near-omniscient, and possibly-imaginary “Big Brother” at its helm.
The year 1984 itself has come and gone, and we can take comfort in the fact that some of the novel’s direst predictions have not happened: The world has not morphed into three supergovernments, and thank God we are not forced to eat synthetic meals that have “the appearance of vomit.” Even so, there are ominous signs seen in the novel that are (re)emerging in our time, which require our full vigilance:
Doublethink, doublespeak. In “1984,” the government through its “Ministry of Truth” makes use of language, not to communicate, but to confuse, and not to inform, but to mislead. The term “doublespeak,” inspired by the novel’s “doublethink,” describes this practice. The Ministry of Truth itself is a form of doublespeak as it is actually a vehicle for outright lies and historical revisionism. People are tortured in the “Ministry of Love,” and war is waged from the “Ministry of Peace.”
Today, our political discourse is full of doublespeak. Just recently, Kellyane Conway, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, used the term “alternative facts” to describe the new US president’s false claims about the number of people who attended his inauguration. By creating euphemisms to describe deceit, politicians sanitize the gravity of their misdeeds, and detract attention from them.
Another example, one that has global resonance, is the term “collateral damage.” Used by various governments, including the United States and more recently the Philippines, the term dehumanizes the innocent victims of wars and state violence, and makes it easy for governments to talk about the unintended consequences of their actions.
Systematic historical revisionism. In “1984,” even old newspapers are subject to revision, and since people have no other source of information, the past is readily revised. With no other references to fall back on other than their memories, the people embrace the revised past: “If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.”
Orwell knew that the past exerts political force: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” This insight should allow us to make sense of ongoing attempts to revise the past in our own world. It is naive, for instance, to see the attempts to make heroes out of Marcos and Suharto as disconnected from their political heirs’ ambitions.
Surveillance. The telescreens in “1984” are TV screens that double as security cameras monitored by the state’s fearsome “Thought Police.” Telescreens allow the state to monitor and punish dissent even at the personal level, hence the warning “Big Brother is watching you.” Even as it propagates falsehoods, the ruling Party is interested in the truth about its subjects.
In a way, our smartphones, laptops and digital TV sets have all become telescreens: We use them to access news and entertainment, but they are also used to monitor our activities, and if Edward Snowden is to be believed, potentially even our conversations. The internet, indeed, has made it easier to be an all-knowing Big Brother.
The novel ends with the bleak picture of Winston Smith being tortured in the Ministry of Love and emerging as a fully indoctrinated subject who “loved Big Brother” and believed that 2+2=5. The total subjugation of truth enables, and is enabled by, totalitarianism’s power.
If so, our calling today is to stand up for the truth. To fight against historical revisionism even in its insidious forms, and to call out “alternative facts” for what they are, in ways that a majority will understand.
It will not be easy. But if, as Orwell says, “truth telling is a revolutionary act” during times of universal deceit, then we are called to be rebels.
Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.
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