Are We Living in an Orwellian World?

George Orwell (born Eric Blair, 1903–1950) grew up at a time in history that exhibited mankind at its worst. He saw how totalitarian regimes (eg, Fascism in Italy; Nazism in Germany) set the stage for two World Wars that left unimaginable devastation, profoundly scarring several generations. Nevertheless, Orwell was as astute student of human nature and was able to view it through the lens of language. In his insightful essay, Politics and the English language (1946), which foreshadowed many of the themes of his timeless classic 1984, Orwell believed that language had become a powerful political tool used to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics,” he wrote, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia… Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind… [And] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

It was in the shadow of the horrors of WWII that Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984 in 1949. The novel introduces us to Winston Smith living in a world where every individual is under surveilliance because the Party (a totalitarian government) wants to suppress individualism and independent, critical thinking. Smith’s job is to write the news so that it reflects what the Party wants people to believe — regardless of the truth. The novel also introduces several enduring concepts, such as the Thought Police, Newspeak, Big Brother, the Brotherhood, the Ministry of Truth, thoughtcrimes, and the Party that reflect the tremendous power and egregious abuses of a totalitarian government. The story is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Literary critic Lionel Trilling observed, “1984 is a profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the political future, and like any such fantasy, serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present.” Now I know what you are thinking. You are asking yourself: is 1984 really a “fantasy of the political future?” When you read today’s headlines, particularly those that cover any of the totalitarian regimes around the globe — and consider the Trump administration’s assault on truth over the past three years — you will note an eerie coincidence between the world depicted in 1984 and the present day. No wonder many journalists have remarked over the past few years how Orwellian the world is becoming. And they are not trying to be flippant.

So the question we face today is: are we living in an Orwellian world? Ironically, Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale; however, many political leaders in the U.S. and around the globe have used it as a manual on how to lead. How Machiavellian! Let’s take a look at some of the notable quotes from 1984 so you can judge Orwell’s insights and prescience for yourself:

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

“Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

“The best books… are those that tell you what you already knew.”

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

“We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing…The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.”

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?”

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

“Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”

“If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

“To die hating them, that was freedom.”

It’s amazing — isn’t it — how 2019 is a lot like 1984?

____________________

If you enjoyed this please visit Atkins Bookshelf, the blog that explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. The goal of Bookshelf is to educate, entertain, and inspire. At the heart of Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature. Join here: https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com

President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store