Oceania is a dystopia, ruled by Big Brother, with a communist title: Ingsoc. Its government is tripartite: (1) The Ministry of Love focusses on sustaining torture; (2) the Ministry of Peace focusses on sustaining war; and (3) the Ministry of Plenty focusses on sustaining poverty. The lowest class is the proles, treated like animals. The mutual enemy is either Eastasia or Eurasia – Big Brother decides. Newspeak is the lingua franca. Critical thinking is a thoughtcrime. Doublethink validates paradox. “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” (p. 4). Dear reader, welcome to the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984).
In the nineteen forties, a war ended. People celebrated peace. But Orwell remained pessimistic and sceptical, because he still felt a strange atmosphere. He was correct. Countries began acting like gangsters, taking sides respectively. Two gang leaders, namely the United States and the Soviet Union, silently opposed each other, and silently helped their gang members attack rivals. The U.S. preached freedom, despite socioeconomic inequalities; by contrast, the Soviet Union promoted complete socioeconomic equality, but abolished freedom. Stalemate seemed permanent, though tension was constantly rising.
Eventually, as the world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. won – and freedom prevailed too. Our world could have been what Orwell had foreseen, however, had the Soviet Union won. This historical period, from 1946 to 1991, is what many name the Cold War.
Image source: Voyager
Between both sides, Orwell took the middle ground, though he loathed Soviet ideology more. He believed that collective good and individual freedom can coexist, and there was no need to wipe out freedom. Due to fear and hatred, more so that he always used fiction for political purposes, Orwell wrote 1984.
This isn’t a coincidence, neither was the skyrocketing sales of 1984 last year, because many of its features bear resemblance to not only the Soviet Union, but also contemporary cases – such as those in Malaysia. Warning his readers against dictatorship and communism, he ultimately had a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”.
To me, although authoritarianism is in fact salient throughout the novel, Orwell actually harnesses a simple aspect of humanity to convey his message: critical thinking. The powerful no longer need military coercion to control us. Instead, as long as our minds are less aware, anything we see or hear can be dangerously taken-for-granted. This means the ruling class can control us via cognitive tactics. Exactly so, Oceanians stopped thinking critically; and the life that follows is but a vicious cycle of ideological manipulation.
Oceania is a sphere of perfect discipline, wherein language and politics are inextricably intertwined. As a linguistics student, tracing the close relationship between cognition and language, as portrayed in 1984, fascinates me. Who controls language, can control thinking; who controls thinking controls the present; “who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future” (p. 34). To achieve so, a false consciousness must exist, and language is the ideal medium. Newspeak – the final version of the English language – pervades Oceanian culture: communications, the official dictionary, newspapers, literature, and history textbooks alike. Upon the arts, the sciences are just a tool for manufacturing ammunition.
Newspeak is the pedagogical language, from childhood to death. Deteriorating critical thought, Newspeak eases the inculcation of doublethink. Affective adjectives disappear: the antonym of good is ungood; the comparative adjective, plusgood; the superlative, doubleplusgood. This pattern applies to every other word. Palpable in the grammatical structure of Newspeak, as much as in almost every feature of Oceania, is that everything requires no critical thinking.
Without criticality, facts can thus change. Doublethink easily becomes a norm. Big Brother decides what facts are. More precisely, he determines what facts are facts, what facts are fake news, and what lies are alternative facts. Doublethink manifests itself in a straightforward way, as shown by these examples:
- Distorting facts and history requires critical thinking; but critical thinking means death in Oceania: to understand this principle, Party members must know that criticality simultaneously exists and does not exist.
- Love is illegal; but loving Big Brother is nature. To understand this principle, Party members must know that love is simultaneously good and ungood.
Indeed, critical thinking amounts to a thoughtcrime, which will lead to a seizure by the Thought Police. You can’t escape from it, because Big Brother is always watching you: telescreens, holes in your room, drones, spies, and of course, your own children, all scrutinise you. For thoughtcriminals, death is only the final stage. Before that, the Party will purify you. The first step: physical torture, and you weaken. The second step: mental torture, and your self-pride erodes. If you’re innately afraid of rats, they’ll place a few starved, matured rats on you, and eat your face clean. This is inexorable, unless your mind becomes “pure”. Even if you die, you die a cleansed muppet. No, even if they kill you, you don’t die. Instead, you become non-existent, deleted from history and everyone’s memory.
Thoughtcrime does not entail death; thoughtcrime IS death.
1984, p. 28
Less fictional than prophetic, Big Brother embodies a maxim: those in power don’t ever want oppositional thinking. Rather, they want our direct reception of elite propaganda, as much as a sponge absorbing water – or whatever liquid we’re forced to absorb. We still have a choice, though, as that moment hasn’t arrived. Either we submit ourselves to cognitive oppression, or we be ceaselessly conscious.
Reading George Orwell is joy. Every tiny bit of the novel contributes to the literary orgasm; besides, this climax never stops. 1984 stands out for its exquisite language and ominous neologisms, delicately sharpened by a semi-formal tone. By using the past tenses, and by combining horror and satire, Orwell takes on a history-telling role. Akin to an omen, he warns us in the fiercest air. The moment we stop thinking critically is the instant of our conceptual surrender and death; and the moment we surrender signals the end of love, logic, and individuality. It’s perhaps the best novel, if you want an extreme introduction to the worst state of humanity.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
1984, p. 267
Featured image source: Inker Magazine
By Teoh Sing Fei