Back in the year 2000, a year once imagined to feature jetpacks and interplanetary exploration (or at the very least, the world’s stupidest counting-based Digital Apocalypse), I was given the option to read one of two dystopian novels in my sophomore English class. On one hand, I could read Brave New World – with its mechanized cloning, biologically engineered hierarchy, free love and government mandated hallucinogenics… but on the other, there was 1984, a book about a totalitarian surveillance state bent on controlling the minds of its citizens.
I am not sure why I chose 1984, perhaps I simply connected with it as my birth year. That touchstone proved a doorway to understanding the novel; the past from which I originated contrasted sharply with the alternate reality presented in that book, a world locked in eternal war of state versus state and a government against its people.
I came to understand that much of the book was shaped by the author’s unique experiences as a socialist freedom fighter combating fascism in the streets of Spain and as a foreign assignment journalist writing critiques against the Imperial policies of his own country, Britain. These lines of causation made me reconsider my political apathy at the time, as I began to see the themes of 1984 in the political structures in my own community and nation. The incredible phrase “whomever controls the past controls the future, whomever controls the present controls the past” barely scratched the surface…
Flash forward to 2017. A demagogue campaigning on racist and bigoted nationalism and authoritarian reverence of a fictitious past was elected by a vocal minority through a heavily gerrymandered Electoral College. As his fascist supporters cry victory, copies of 1984 have started to fly off the shelves. In an age in which the means of mass surveillance have come into the hands of those with the political will to use them for direct injustice, people are hungry for literature that will give them a sense of understanding of these dangers, wisdom in the face of power. Any fan of a book once devalued as trivia for high school graduate academics would have felt vindicated at this renewed interest. But more than that, I feel hopeful.
Hopeful is not a feeling that comes often to those who finish reading 1984, the end of which [spoilers, obviously] features broken and defeated main characters, days before their oppressors will bring a previously foreshadowed and unceremonious end to their painful lives. Many readers, because of that, do not read past the ending into the Appendix, which is a shame because that’s where I see 1984‘s hopeful aspects.
The Appendix is written as an “in-fiction” historical document on the Authoritarian Language (known as “Newspeak”) that the ruling Party enforces, and with which they hope to replace English. The existence of the Appendix as a future document looking back shows that the Party was unsuccessful in this endeavor, and the Party and its whole society is written in the decidedly past tense.
While our main characters probably never lived to see this eventuality, the injustice of 1984 was eventually overthrown. Now, hold on, you might be thinking. That’s all nice and dramatic…. but the society we live in now… and that of my high school years… was not like that of this book. People buy 1984 now because they fear a hyperbolic threat, you might say, and the book has little truths relevant to our world.
I couldn’t disagree more, not least because the heart and soul of 1984 was not in the specific actions and events of the book, but in the principles to which it drew our attention. The Party doesn’t seek to replace modern English with Newspeak out of some kind of hatred, but because they realize what the author George Orwell made clear in his essay on the subject “Politics and the English Language,” namely that language is the base code from which we derive abstract thought. The Party knows that to control language is to control how people think and express themselves. I saw this as a teenager reading the novel – people use language to create and take part in a common social reality. The terms and rules of that language shape how we interact with each other and perceive reality itself.
For instance, look at the term “politically correct.” In its origin, this phrase refers to speech that honors those in political power and allows the speaker access to that power by playing their game. It is the very essence of Newspeak. However, in reaction to the Free-Love, Civil Rights, SAGA (or LGBTQI), and Feminist movements, conservative talk show hosts and media personalities began using the term to refer to socially conscious speech.
When it became politically imprudent to be caught referring to people of dark sin by the N word, or women as various dehumanizing phrases, these demagogues cried “political correctness.” This language allowed them to sell their audiences a world in which non-whites, women, and other marginalized political groups were not a rising political power but a reigning political power, and an oppressive one that prosecuted the “thoughtcrime of bigotry” just as thoughtcrime is rooted out by the Party in 1984.
By using this term, the Conservative movement established a feeling that bigoted speech was a freedom, instead of an attack or a form of oppression, and the just measure to try and reform how we speak about marginalized people, to allow them better access to the conversation, was painted as an oppression on those who are not marginalized. This way of thinking flowed throughout the conservative movement until adherents were voted in to small offices, then larger and larger positions. Then we have our last election, in which our President campaigned on ending “political correctness” while his Alt-Right supporters defined themselves as “Anti-PC.”
This movement didn’t come into being ex nihilo. Its progression of causality is rooted in a battle for language, a battle over the perspective and beliefs of the conservative voting demographic – the largely white, straight, cis male whose pains and fears are given meaning and context in the phrase “political correctness.” Those that controlled the present conversation defined the progress of the past as oppression, shaping the animus of the listeners into the political will defining a future election… which is now our present of 2017.
It is my hope that reading 1984 will awaken others to the vast importance of language in shaping our society and political reality. The horrors of that setting are enacted by a vastly powerful government, able to disappear political opponents from even record and memory, as the powers of political correctness would have emulated on those aforementioned conservative talk show hosts, had any such powers existed. We in America do not yet live with that level of control as the norm, but unless we wield our language in defense of the defenseless, against the powerful in aid of the powerless, we may lose relevant liberties and protections.
I also hope that the book will awaken people to how differences in language and language use by different people illustrate the political differences that define each group’s lives. Quoting a Professor of African-America Literature, Fiction editor for the Washington Post Ron Charles reported:
“She said what’s so interesting to her is that white people always think of dystopias as looking forward into this scary future, but black Americans can look back. They’ve already come through their dystopia. They had 200 years of horror and slavery. All the kinds of things we imagine the future dystopia being like are what black Americans already went through.”
So often, when we consider and compare dystopian fiction to our own world, we only compare what we read with our own experience. As George Orwell seemingly discovered in Spain and in British colonies, wisdom is seeing through the eyes of others. For this reason, I wish to use the last of my article celebrating 1984 to direct your attention to another dystopian novel, this one written by a female African American author, that more closely resembles the world we now find ourselves in. From Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower,” when speaking of the violence committed by the supporters of fictitious Presidential candidate Jarret:
“Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such in mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear […] as for the beatings, he has a simple answer. ‘Join us! […] Help us make America Great again!’ He had notable success with his carrot-and-stick approach – ‘join us and thrive or whatever happens to you as a result of your sinful stubbornness is your problem.’ His opponent Vice President Edward Jay Smith calls him a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite. Smith is right, of course, but Smith is such a tired grey shadow of a man. Jarret, on the other hand…”
NOTE: Thanks given to Nnedi Okorafor of Modern Ghana
This article was written in Memory of actor John Hurt, who passed this January, and played the antagonist Winston Smith in the 1984 film version of 1984.