In the novel, ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ written by George Orwell, the author uses ideas such as language, surveillance and the alteration of history to explore the warning’s the novel poses. Published in 1949, the novel shone a light on what a future looks like when technology and people with too much power have taken control. The novel follows a society living under a totalitarian regime, where conformity and compliance is enforced by fear. It is a word full of self censorship and loss of freedom, where the government dictates the actions of individuals. Through this lense, we can see how the acceleration of technology and surveillance could negatively effect our society. This story line has now become even more relevant, with recent controversy over the level of privacy the New Zealand public really has and restrictions on speech due to political correctness and text language. The novel also does it’s part to highlight the importance of history and learning from the mistakes of our past. The novel follow Party member, Winston, as he struggles to accept the idea the party forces on the public, choosing instead to record his rebellious thoughts and fight his internal struggle of independent thought against the Party.
One of the specific warnings that ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ offers is the idea that restrictions on speech could result on restrictions of thought. The novel introduces the idea of ‘newspeak’ very early on. New speak is the language of Oceania, which was created by the party to meet the ideological requirements of the new world that lives under the lense of Big Brother. In the novel Winston often talks about how the society created by the party has lost freedom of speech, and how they have used the creation of the new language to manipulate an individuals capacity for independent thought. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only synonyms; there is also antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of another word.” This quote comments on the ways in which the party is restricting speech. Taking out verbs and nouns, making it difficult for an individual to express how they are feeling or what they are doing. The objective of altering the dictionary is to rule out any expressive words that promote original thought. Overtime the dictionary will become so sparse that there is not enough words in existence for a person to have an individual thought. This means that in time thought crime will cease to exist. “Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime 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 it’s meaning rigidly defined and its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten ” People do not crave to express a feeling they do not know the meaning of, so limiting a persons access to independent thought is an effective way of avoiding a revolt against the government. The government uses the execution of unorthodox words to criminalize unapproved government thought. It is very clear that Orwell understood the power language has over the mind and is warning us how easily our minds can be unwillingly compromised. We see a version of newspeak in everyday society, with the growing popularity of political correctness, which has been sold under the guise of tolerance and affection for others. It gets the point where people become fearfully polite, unable to express opinions without the risk of being shamed, censored and outcast. In the age of tolerance, there is no freedom of speech, expressed thought or unpopular opinion that is spoken without backlash. This idea of speech being politically correct is working to restrict the things people are able to voice without serious repercussions. Much like the altered language we see in Nineteen eighty-four, political correctness is already having an effect on freedom of speech. An example of this happened recently in the USA, with the government passing a law to ban some forms ‘intolerant’ speech. In complete contradiction of the First Amendment clause that prevents the government from proscribing speech or expressive conduct, they now have a court issued right to reprimand individuals using ‘intolerant’ speech. This has been justified as a reaction to discrimination of ‘government speech’. I believe Orwell developed this idea of newspeak as a warning of the effect our vocabulary has on the amount of change we can make. The more words we know, the easier it is to explain and offer opinions about complex ideas in our everyday lives. Orwell’s intention is to highlight the effect newspeak has on the ‘dumbing down’ of the population of Oceania, and how easily thought control could be implemented in our lives. A restriction on the things that define who we are; art, literature, entertainment. Orwell’s warning is clear; It is so easy for the powerful to limit our independent thoughts and ideas, it’s as simple as redefining the dictionary. He warns us to beware of other and efforts they make to control our minds. This kind of control starts with a restriction of one kind of speech, but can blossom into the loss of expression if it is left to thrive in the mind of society.
Another warning that is developed throughout the text is the infringement of privacy in the lives of the Oceanian population. The novel is very focused on the way that Winston’s privacy is being negatively affected. There is one small space in his whole house that is not under surveillance of the party. The ‘telescreen’, a propaganda induced monitoring tool used by Big Brother, is used to control the actions of society. People are so overcome by fear that their actions or speech will be considered a revolt against the Party, that they barely have free will. “The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.” Winston often talks about the power given to the party through the use of invasive technology like the ‘telescreen’. The people are unable to be truly alone, as there is always the chance somebody is watching them, even in their own homes. The idea that they have no freedom, no way to break the law without being discovered, is an effective method of controlling those who have managed to maintain freedom of thought, despite word restriction. Even for those unaffected by newspeak it is impossible to express any thought crimes. The people who are still able to commit thought crimes have no way to act, as they are monitored for the whole day, there is no chance of revolt without discovery. It is the loss of privacy, the openness of the society in Oceania that gives the Party so much power. Overtime they become obsessed with this power, increasing levels of surveillance to gain more and outlaw the existence of thought crime. “By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside of the range of the ‘telescreen’, so far as sight went.” Even Winston, who had a small unsupervised area in his house, where he thought he could escape, was being watched at all times. In the end it is not Winston’s ‘telescreen’ that incriminates him, but his journal, the written expression of every rebellious thought crime he has every had, that finally seals his fate. We can see an example of real life invasive surveillance in London, England, the setting of this novel, where there is one surveillance camera per 11 people. The extensive monitoring capacity of the city is part of a new initiative to reduce crime rates in the city. This was implemented on the tail of the Britain leaving the European union, when incidences of hate crime increased by %164. Essentially, on the back of over emphasizing a terrorist threat, the British government has been able to increase the amount of surveillance, effectively increasing the control they have over the population of London. This is an example of the kind of monitoring that we see in the novel.The government has used fear to increase their control over the population, just as the Party did with the people of Oceania. This validates Orwell’s warning to protect our privacy from the government, and stop people from allowing unjustifiable encroachments on the independent thought. The novel, written and published in 1949, was intended to warn of a future time where an invasion of this caliber was seen as normal. The intention behind the monitoring in the text is to make the reader understand that the most important step to preventing infringement on privacy is to not become complacent on the issues that matter. Any step towards invasive monitoring is a step towards complete loss of freedom, the government gaining more power than necessary.
Another significant warning in Orwell’s novel is the importance of history. In the text, the Party have such overarching control of everything in society, they are able to alter news, predictions and even history to suit their current stance. By controlling the past, they are able to control the present. “And if all other accept the lie which the party imposed – if all records tell the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became the truth.” A theme throughout the novel is that if people are changeable enough, under a strong enough influence, a change is the past soon becomes the only past that society knows. This kind of power comes after the manipulation of language and thought, and the constant fear of being watched has been established, this now overwhelmingly powerful government has the ability to change the past to fit their version of the present. This is used as a method to control those who have remained unaffected by the changes to language, whose minds have not become a fear induced kind of complacent because of constant surveillance. If someone has managed to maintain their independent thought through the shortening of the national diction and constant infringement of privacy, it is the manipulation of the past that is the Party’s final guard against rebels. “For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record of your own memory?” Even if one has memories of a time where things were different, where people existed that had since be vaporized, they have no way of proving that existence. The party erases all record of information that could be harmful, anything that could compromise the stability of their all incompassing power. A useful aspect of Orwell’s theme of history is hints to Stalin’s Russia. Like Stalin , the Party used technology to implement psychological barricades that stop the population committing crimes, even in their minds. ‘The poster’ was a prominent tool used by Stalin to manipulate a sense of obligation towards the government, while also instilling the fear that someone is always watching. The Party does the same thing with propaganda posters of Big Brother with the caption, “Big Brother is watching you.” These posters are used to fuel the paranoia in a society that already believes they are being watched. Not only do they behave as the Party wants while under surveillance, but they fear that they will be caught by Big Brother even when they are truly alone. I believe the warning that Orwell is trying offer is that we need to learn from our past. We’ve had wars that we do not want to repeat, signed treaties that have ended in failure and lost valuable soldiers due to failed plans. A recent time where these warnings have become relevant is the Syria bombing, authorized by U.S president, Donald Trump. This caused people to compare the recent tension between the U.S and Russia to 1947 Cold war. Remembering how close we were to world destruction, to everyone being non existent, is an important lesson that we needed to learn. We learned from our past that nuclear war is not the answer, and we needed to know that so we knew how to progress without nuclear war. I believe this is Orwell’s point, that we need the help of the past to prevent making the same mistake again in the future. The Party are taking away Oceania’s ability to learn from their history. “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” I believe this is because the Party maintain their overarching power by being seen to never make mistakes. If the Party never makes a false prediction, never loses a war, they can never been seen as anything but winners.
These methods of fear induced control all correspond, working together to reduce any kind of rebellion against the ideals of the party. In the Novel, the combined affect of these themes makes the book a warning of what the world could become if we allow restrictions on speech, encroachment on privacy and forget the what our collective history has taught us. The book is not intended to tell the future, it is trying to warn people of what the worst case scenario looks like. A warning of how grim it is to lose complete control over your speech, actions and even thoughts. Orwell paints a world full of dire consequences, a result of collective complacency. He urges us to hold on to our individualism, as it is independent thought that keeps us from becoming completely oblivious. He encourages us to be aware of government control, able to stop the complete destruction of our free will. Most of all I think Orwell is warning us to be aware and never take our current freedom for granted. We are able to freely speak without sever punishment. We have the opportunity to be truly alone in our own homes. We have access to records, information that shows proof of past events. All of these things contribute to our freedom, which is something we need to protect from people with power and guard from those who would use it to gain more.
“Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Statement of intent:
My intention with this piece of writing to discuss the ways in which George Orwell has used his novel to warn people of what could happen if we become complacent and freely offer up our independent thought. For each individual warning I have used an event or social issue that is currently relevant in our society. My intention with these links to the modern world was to show how relevant the novel is to our everyday lives, over 60 years after being published. Although Orwell’s warnings were extreme, I believe they still resonate today. The references to modern issues were incorporated to show how much we are in need of warnings, and how quickly our society is succumbing to the control of a higher power and increased surveillance. we face issues that are eerily similar to those we barely acknowledge today, which is exactly what Orwell was trying to tell us. The piece is meant to discuss the importance of being aware and present in society.