In today’s society of colloquial speech and slang, we place little value on the power of language. We see it as a means to communicate our thoughts and feelings, unaware that the way we use certain words and inflections on our voice can manipulate the opinion of the person we are speaking to. The aspect of language that we sometimes fail to consider, is how powerfully restriction on speech can restrict the way we think. If you do no have the words with which to express your opinions, you never share them, and your personal view gets lost, never leaving your mind. In the texts ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell, ‘Minority Report’ directed by Steven Spielberg, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ written by Margaret Atwood and ‘2+2=5’ performed by Radio head, visual and written language are used by those in power to repress rebellion. This issue of manipulation of language is prevalent in our current society. We see the manipulation of thoughts and opinions through language via political correctness, positions of power and the appeal of particular setting.
In the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ written by George Orwell, there is evidence of the government using language to repress rebellion from the very beginning, with the immediate introduction of newspeak. Newspeak; the official language of Oceania, created by the Party (INGSOC) to meet the ideological requirements of an English Socialist society. The introduction of these new, altered words begins immediately, with the introduction of the character Syme. Syme represents the New Speak movement in Oceania, and is an author of the New speak dictionary. Through this character, Orwell demonstrates the power of language, and how his knowledge and understanding of language complexity resulted in his inevitable death. Syme’s knowledge of the English language is a threat to the party. He understands that the narrowing of the range of words in the common vocabulary is the governments method of manipulating the opinions. “We’re cutting the language down to the bone.” Syme understands that the formation of Newspeak is not meant to build on the current language, but to destroy it in a way that discourages independent thought. “Don’t you see that 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.” Orwell offers a warning about the effect of narrowing language on the way people think. If the language used to express unpopular opinions is subject to restricts, overtime those words fade from existence. We forget about them, and it becomes increasingly more difficult to express out personal thoughts and feelings. “Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meaning rubbed out and forgotten.” Orwell comments of how language can be used to manipulate the minds of people in society. By changing the dictionary, altering the meaning of a word to become something completely absolute, closed to any interpretation, INGSOC has effectively narrowed the range of thought. People not only struggle to speak out against the injustice of Oceania’s totalitarianism, but they are often unable to form conclusions about the state that are independent. Often, any opinion civilians form on their own terms have form through state manipulation based in the language they are able to think in and use to speak. This is relevant to modern society, as we can see a form of Newspeak in political correctness. In order to be politically correct, people go out of there way to keep opinions to themselves, because they fear the repercussions of offending others. Although rooted in the idea of having an open minded and accepting society, political correctness does not eliminate prejudice, it just restricts peoples ability to outwardly voice their personal views without being socially reprimanded. It can also have the opposite affect of acceptance, where people silently agree to dislike a person because of their race, religion, sexuality or gender, and there is very little discussion had about the issues that need to solved in our society, which are more often than not swept under the rug, ignored and never addressed. This is due to fear of not being politically correct and voicing an unpopular opinion.
In the novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ written by Margaret Atwood, a slightly different method is used to control the lesser people in society, but it is still in the form of manipulation of language. This is similar to Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, as the language manipulation we see is again based in power, fear and intimidation. In difference we see between the novels is that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has a type of language based manipulation that is set in a hierarchy . People in power have the ability to speak, whereas the maids are not even allowed to say their own names aloud. This is the same idea that we see in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, where the people in power have a stronger voice, and use their influence over language to control people in society. However, there is a difference between how the manipulation of language is presented in each novel. Whereas ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ has presented control via language as a change to vocabulary that has resulted in restrictions on speech and thought, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ presents the idea of language manipulation with restrictions of which people have the ability to voice their opinions. This idea of freedom of speech is supported by specific characters. Int he novel, Commanders and wives are free to speak their opinions whenever they please. They are the ones in power, and freely share their thoughts and ideas, which means their ideas are the only ones ever heard in society. “We learned to lipread, our heads flat on our beds, turned sideways, watching each others mouths. In this way we exchanged names from bed to bed.” The handmaids have strict restrictions on speech, which doesn’t only manipulate their language and thoughts, but their identity. They aren’t allowed to speak their own names, to humanize themselves, as that plants a seed of self empowerment, which could be fatal to the structure of the government. Phrases such as “Blessed be the fruit,” “Praise be,” and “Which I receive with joy,” are examples of the how speech is restricted for the handmaids. They are only allowed to speak respectfully, never disagreeing or giving personal opinions, just reciting common phrases to please those in a higher position of power than them. This is another approach to manipulation of language that we can see in modern society. People are often influenced by people in power, for example politician and celebrities. These people have a platform to speak and share their ideas. They use media to convey their opinions, and they are able to convince society that they are correct, simply because they have a platform to express their ideas. They are the ones in power, and therefore it is their ideas that get heard. Although it differs in the method, both of these manipulations of language have the ability to alter the way society perceives those in power. Through this selective freedom of speech, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ shows us how powerful silence can be. Those who are kept silent, under control and unable to speak are the people with the most intricate and valuable opinions regarding the way society works, as they see it all from the bottom of the social spectrum. They, however, are not able to voice that, so inequality is never acknowledged as a problem, and the laws made by the government are all that people will ever know. Another aspect of this novel that shows manipulation is the visual representation of the different groups of people, based on their place in society. Visual language is an important feature of this novel, but can also seen in other dystopian novels or visual texts.
In the film, ‘Minority Report’ directed by Steven Spielberg, visual language is used to show the viewer a whitewashed world from the eye of the people existing in that universe. The world looks as if it has been sanitized, rid of anything that could promote free thought or artistic expression. The visual language in the text creates an untrustworthy society, with the back bone of an escapist reality. Those who do not know the truth, are not harmed by the lies. This sanitized reality presents a false precedent. “There have been no murders in 6 years.” Precrime is shown to have rid the city of evil, completely eradicating the crime of murder being committed. However, the truth that not all of the people arrested would have become murderers if given the chance, is left out of the precrime adverts.The government paints itself as a pure and trustworthy entity, with the best interests of people as their only goal. We see this represented in visual language during a scene where John Anderton is in the city center, watching a group of young children look at a statue of the Precogs. The children are pure, dressed in white to represent the innocent. They are being lied to by their teacher, taught that the precrime system is just and right, and is always right. “Occasionally the Precogs disagree.” The system isn’t always accurate and sometimes the three precognitives disagree on whether the vision is correct or if the person has an alternative future. The vision of the children in white presents a clean slate. They are pure, completely blank canvasses that the government are using to convey the reliability of society. We see this similar kind of visual representation in ‘The Handmaids Tale,’ with the different colors each type of person wears to show their status in society. The handmaids are required to wear long, flowing red dresses that show Gilead their place in society; slaves the the high ranking commanders. This is a visual representation of their fertility, which is an attractive quality to the Commanders. Red is also often associated with woman and sin. In contrast, we see the wives dressed in blue, which is a color often used to represent the Virgin Mary. They are viewed by the society as untouchable, whereas the Handmaids are of very low ranking and impure. These texts share a theme of visual language being used to convey an important aspect of the texts foundation. Whereas the social status of the handmaids is a vital aspect of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale”, the pristine, whitewashed quality given to the setting in ‘Minority Report’ is key is showing how the government has manipulated society. As we see this whitewashed landscape, we are seeing it from the point of view of te citizens who reside in the city. All they see is a world clean and free of crime. The government have them believe they are completely safe, hiding their corrupt system behind the sanitized vision they present to the world. All of these texts tie into the theme of a government entity using their power of spoken or visual language to manipulate the ideas, and control peoples ability to maintain free and independent thought.
In the song ‘2+2=5’ performed by Radio Head, language manipulation is discussed from the perspective of someone who is experiencing manipulation but does not agree with the people in power. The song lyrics have relevance in both ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Minority Report,’ as they discuss the overarching idea of government control, which is related to the manipulation of language and the mind. “It’s the devils way now, there is no way out.” The devil is named in reference to those in power. We see the relevance of this line in ‘Minority Report,” where they have allowed the government to take complete control, putting their unwavering faith the precrime system and the government, who give their word that it is 100% correct, and they would never punish innocence for crimes they didn’t intend to truly commit. “I’ll stay home forever, where two plus two always makes five.” These lyrics are again relevant to the texts, most notably ‘The Handmaids Tale.” The line is scorning dreamers who attempt to look outside of themselves, and the society that has been created for them, to find other meaning in life. This is a similar sentiment to the fear of punishment seen in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, where the governments actions have encouraged mass hysteria, effectively preventing almost all individual thought being expressed. The song was written as a tribute to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, specifically referencing the conclusion of the novel, where Winston is brainwashed to believe whatever the Party tells him is true, including that two plus two equals five. The entire premise of the song is based on how perceptible to manipulation the human brain can be. “Because you have not been paying attention.” This idea of language manipulating people without them noticing is parallel to the idea of new speak in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The party controsl what people think and feel, simply by taking out the words they would use to express negative opinions or feelings towards the party. People don’t have the vocabulary to fight back against injustice, so they simply don’t. The subjects in all four pieces have let themselves be manipulated, because they were not paying attention to their thoughts being altered by changes in language. If they had recognized the importance of their right to use whatever vocabulary they want, the people in power would never have succeeded in narrowing their range of thought.
These texts, which all fall under the dystopian fiction genre, are all effective in conveying a warning about the power of language. Freedom of speech is a right in most first world countries, and our ability to freely express our thoughts and ideas is something we often overlook. “Because you have not been paying attention.” This quote presents a very important idea to people living in modern society. All of these texts encourage us to pay attention, to never let our right to an opinion be taken via manipulation of any kind. Even if your opinion is unpopular, you have the right to express it, which is the beauty of our current society. if we submit to fear of being judge, it is a form of succumbing to fear, a form of manipulation. These texts show all show a different version of the same warning; this is what society looks like if we relinquish our control over our minds. It can happen via visual or spoken manipulation of language, but it is an issue that is relevant to today’s society, and a warning that should not be ignored.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”