Orwell wrote his most famous book in order to illustrate what he saw as the logical conclusion to any totalitarian government. The abuses he describes fall into three basic categories:
In the world of 1984, everyone is continually watched via the two-way communication device, the telescreen. Every facial expression is scrutinized for any indication that one is not sufficiently loyal. Party members are encouraged to spy on one another for the same purpose. No dissenting opinions may be expressed anywhere–even in one’s thoughts. Ultimately, the only offense against the Party is “thoughtcrime.” Thoughtcriminals risk being “vaporized”–executed, and expunged from all history, as if they never existed. They become “unpersons.”
The role of the official Party language, Newspeak, is to so severely limit the language that vocabulary to express dissension will no longer be possible. “Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think,” says Syme in the play.
Finally, the Records Department, where Winston works, is engaged in continually updating any written record which contradicts the Party’s current goals. Any person who has become an unperson must have any previous favorable notice removed from all written records. Winston makes these changes, and a vast communication machinery reprints that issue of the newspaper, AND retrieves all previous editions of that issue and destroys them. The slots into which memoranda, outdated newspapers, etc. are placed, are referred to euphemistically as “memory holes.”
While we are not scrutinized in the same way as citizens of Oceania, contemporary society is becoming increasingly numbed to the fact of lack of privacy, often even inviting it through extensive use of social media to share information about private life. While this is a voluntary, if often careless, disregard for privacy, we also have more and more knowledge that our privacy is being breached without our permission. For instance, in the secret and unauthorized monitoring of cell phone calls, the collecting of email data, the use of cameras in public buildings and at intersections, and the new capabilities of unmanned drones.
The English language is a vast and unwieldy organism, which does not easily lead to the limitation of thought. While some words have obviously changed their meanings over time–a common and inevitable characteristic of all language–and some words have had their meanings deliberately changed, English is so supple that ideas can generally be expressed in a multitude of ways. And–in part, perhaps, because of Orwell’s work–we find ourselves today very suspicious of any attempt to “ban” words.
However, as our culture becomes increasingly visual and consequently less literate, it is easier for the media gatekeepers to “spin” news and information in ways which are dramatic but overly-simplified. The “sound bites” of radio and TV news do not lend themselves to in-depth commentary, so we see that an ever-larger percentage of the population is ill-informed in many areas. (They may know pop culture, but not current news events. And in a recent informal survey at American University, MSNBC could not find one student who could name one US senator.
The idea of “revisionist history” is repugnant to most–there) is little popular sympathy for so-called “Holocaust deniers.” But as we move further away from the early events of our own nation’s history, the selective highlighting of some events and omission of others from textbooks can become a de facto revisionism. In addition, strong media bias towards the Left, politically, influences its reporting on topics deemed to be “politically” correct or incorrect. Without individual consumers’ intentionally wide reading and ability to seek out all sides of a story, we do run the risk today of being told what to think, instead of being given the tools with which to think for ourselves.
So quick! While you can still think for yourself–come see 1984 and decide FOR YOURSELF…how close ARE we to the world Orwell was warning us against?