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1513 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

George Orwell and Language Control

by Duff Brenna

One of George Orwell’s main concerns with capitalist, fascist, or communist societies was the ruthlessness they showed toward all other forms of government and towards any dissent of the people. Orwell pointed out that governments such as Stalin’s in Russia and Mao Tse-tung’s in China manipulated the masses, educating them through the media to do whatever the government wanted. Propaganda, the manipulation of words, was their major tool for brainwashing the people, just as it had been for Hitler in Germany. Hitler’s words had hypnotized a nation and set Germans to harassing and killing Jews and other “non-Aryans.”

Orwell said that nations respond to the language of their inconceivably foolish leaders because people are easily frightened. Fear controls them. They see enemies everywhere. Their leaders tell them that the enemies want to kill them. It is a fight of ideologies that will only end when one nation finally destroys the other. In 1984 we see this situation reflected in the three great powers that continually war with each other: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.

Orwell said that language makes humans easy to control—control their language and you control the people. A simple example of that notion was brought home to me one day when I was talking to a young Chinese woman who told me that her dialect had no word that matched the English word for privacy. Privacy was a concept her parents didn’t understand. So there was no such thing as privacy in her parents' house. After living in America for a number of years, it drove this young woman crazy to go back to China and not have the privacy she had gotten used to. There was no lock on her bedroom door. When she put a table in front of the door so she could be alone, her mother came unglued and accused her of being an unloving daughter. America had ruined her.

In 1984 Orwell warns us about this danger of losing words and thus losing the ability to think about concepts like privacy. He said that through propaganda and media control men and women all over the world will lose their human qualities and will become soul-less automatons, and not be aware of it. People will no longer see the inhumanity of their government’s policies. People will live in constant fear of The Other—that country or those people who are different from us. Orwell points out that it is easy to get one race or religion or ideology to dehumanize all others and want to kill them. This is what all humans fear, that the strangers will invade and fail to recognize our common humanity. And kill us as if we were loathsome insects, or scions of Satan. In 1984 the government makes sure that this fear is channeled into hatred of other nations and people. Orwell illustrates the images of fear channeling into hatred in what he calls the “Two Minutes Hate”: was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing screaming lunatic [1984,p. 14, Signet].

Orwell said, “I watched a man hanged once. It seemed to me worse than a thousand murders.” Why? Because it was killing for the most dispassionate of reasons—not out of rage or for money or jealousy, but to protect a political point of view. The point is that we can understand how passion can overwhelm us and perhaps create a moment of fury in which we might kill someone. But to kill them without passion, kill them coldly because they don't agree with our ideology or politics is unforgivable in Orwell's eyes.

DOUBLETHINK as everyone knows is a word that Orwell coined. If you can doublethink a concept you have taught yourself to hold two contradictory beliefs in your mind simultaneously and accept them both as true. You can say that War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. And you don’t question the oxymoronic contradictions inherent in any of those phrases.

Anyone who surrenders his sense of moral altruism (the helping of your fellow human beings) to the greedy desires of, say, a corporation is guilty of doublethink, because he forces himself to think the opposite of what he once believed to be ethical behavior—that grand notion that tells us we shouldn’t be greedy and that we should take care of one another. But because we want to make money and rise in the company, we must believe that what the company does is right. If widows and orphans suffer, it is their own fault, not ours. The end result of doublethink is that we are no longer aware of any discrepancy between truth and falsehood. Mainly, doublethink is a way of looking at life that comes from believing totally in some sort of ideology—Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism, any kind of ISM. The ISM holds the truth. It’s embedded in the language.

A Christian who goes to war and kills other human beings must be able to doublethink in order to destroy human lives. The Bible says in black and white: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. But the soldier kills because he has the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in his mind at the same time. Sexual shame, moral conformity and anti-intellectuality are doublethink concepts used to control people's behavior. We were warned about those three weapons before by William Blake, who kept telling us that if we needed to glorify something, not to glorify war, rather glorify your own creative soul, the artist in you who talks to God through what you create. In 1984, Orwell illustrates the methods of a society that tries to kill love by killing or at least controlling sexual desire: “The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it” [Ibid, p. 66].

Along with doublethink, another term coined by Orwell is DOUBLESPEAK: The use of language to distort reality and corrupt thought. Language becomes a tool used by those in power to achieve their ends. Doublespeak depends mostly on euphemisms. “Getting it on,” “sleeping with,” “pre-owned vehicle,” “the big C,” “sanitation engineer,” “non-retained,” “non-renewed,” “selected out,” “negative patient care outcome” are all examples of doublespeak euphemisms. Ministry of Peace is a euphemism for war. Ministry of Truth is a euphemism for lies. Ministry of Love is a euphemism for torture.

One more term should be understood in connection with Orwell’s work. Dystopia: The word comes from the prefix dys, Greek for bad, abnormal, impaired, ill, and Utopia, a name coined by Thomas More (1516) for his imaginary island. Utopia, of course, is from the Latin for Nowhere. But for us it’s come to mean an idealized place with a perfect political and social system. The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill put the two words together to describe what would be a state in which the government creates conditions and quality of life that are dreadful. Writers such as Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) took up Mill’s word to describe possible future societies that would enslave their people and use them for political ends. All of these dystopias are warnings that criticize what are current trends in the culture that might lead to a future that none of us would want. Well, that none of us should want. If we were all speaking the same language, we would have no fear of a dystopia in our future. But of course our language over the past ten years has gone from bad to worse to openly corrupt. “It doesn’t matter if you lie, just so you get your way” has become a Republican mantra. The Democratic Party is full of liars too, but if you catch them in a lie, they are generally decent enough to show at least a modicum of shame. The current crop of Republicans scarcely know or care about the meaning of the word.

According to Orwell, what will happen to any democratic society if clarity in language collapses? He predicts that the society itself will collapse. Bad use of language makes it easy for us to have foolish and absolutely incorrect ideas. Distorted language can distort us, corrupt us and make us so stupid we won't know lies when we hear them. We won't question our leaders. We won't have the language tools to enable us to speak the truth. Turn on the major media TV news and listen to the politicians twisting truth into something unrecognizable—their words depending solely on a great vacancy between our ears—and you will (perhaps) have a Joycean epiphany, a moment of illumination that Orwell was right to warn us and that we as a people ignore him at our peril.


SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury