2021 has been thrown upon us with a constant stream of events many have never experienced before. Among the recent news in our world is the announcement of President Donald Trump being indefinitely suspended from a large number of major social media outlets for breaking their terms of service; multiple of which are claiming that the president is guilty of “incitement of violence,” which breaks agreements from most websites’ terms of service. Many voices in America are citing this action, particularly by Twitter, as “Orwellian” and comparing the suspension of Donald Trump to the events in the 1949 dystopian science fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell. How does 1984 relate to 2021? How do they differ? What does it mean to be Orwellian? It’s these questions that we need to ask ourselves before addressing the situation as something from a dystopian novel.
I’ll do my best not to spoil main plot points of the book, because I recommend you read the book if you can, if not just excerpts. When people talk about 1984, they usually address the book’s ideas of surveillance, and authoritarianism/totalitarianism. These ideas play into the theme of thought, where the thoughts of the characters are under surveillance, and cracked down upon with great authority. There’s terms like thoughtcrime and the Thought Police, who act against any unorthodox thoughts that contrast the ideology of Oceania, which is known as Ingsoc. The Thought Police are secret police who discover these thinkers and punish them, ensuring that by the end of the punishment, their thoughts will remain according to the status quo and in line with loving your nation. For the politics to work in 1984, thought must be controlled and loving of the status quo; any wrongdoers must be fixed. Orwell's commentary in this book illustrates how easy it can be for the mind to be polluted in order to serve the state.
Looking at today, there’s a very loose and hyperbolic view one could visualize when comparing the world of 1984 to the current day United States government and corporations. However, not only is 1984 based on very clear moments in our history that aren’t like the US, but the novel also relates to our world in ways unbeknownst to the people online name calling people or things “Thought Police," or “Big Brother.”
1984 was primarily based on the accounts George Orwell saw in the creation of Soviet Russia. Orwell was highly critical of the strict, authoritarian way of Stalin and Stalinism, and was critical of the force of nationalism to be used against a certain enemy decided by the higher class, which was found in Leon Trotsky’s ideology. 1984 is also based on the totalitarianism of the Nazi regime in Germany, with Nazi propaganda everywhere and the strict nationalism of loving Nazi Germany and praising Hitler. This shows that it’s not an issue of left or right, but rather the free and the captured; the powerful versus the weak. Orwell is aware of this too. In a collection of essays published in 1970, Orwell wrote “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism as I understand it.” Orwell also fought with the Marxist POUM militia in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist movement into Spain. Orwell recounts his memories of war in his memoir “Homage to Catalonia” and uses some of his observations from the war to also help build 1984.
1984 is significant in our world today. Many people argue that the government has too much surveillance over its citizens, and that thoughts are being controlled by giant corporations and big government. I am interested in thoughts because of my light interest in psychology, mainly in the same ballpark of “why do I enjoy this movie?” or “why do I or someone find this funny?” What makes people tick is fascinating to me. So I find it interesting that the people online who are typically the most vocal about the themes of 1984 tend to be the biggest instances of proving the book’s point. A term coined in the book is “Doublethink” which is also known in real life as cognitive dissonance. To summarize, it is essentially when someone holds two contradictory ideas or beliefs, and acts on one to do their best to make them consistent. An example of this is certain conservative voices responding to the January 6th riots at the Capitol building in D.C. When observing interviews, one can find that even if some conservatives argued that the riots were good, they’ll deflect when needed and say the riots were staged by left-wing groups like Antifa, in order to control the viewers' thoughts for their gain. Typically, it has also been a right wing idea to alter history, with President Trump wanting to go forward with The 1776 Commission, which would cause American History to be taught in schools in a more patriotic way. The 1776 Commission will be in defense of America, even in the worst cases of prejudice and oppression; forcing a more positive opinion of our country on America's youth, even when positive is not the best route. This is parallel to the ideas of controlling history in 1984, a story with vibrant themes of molding and manipulating thought. The fact of the matter is that certain people still want to control your thoughts in 2021 for the benefit of their own interests. People don’t want you to think differently of the state, or think differently of them, or be critical of any past, present, or future actions of the government. They want you to think that everything they do is good and right and everything their opponent does is evil and wrong. They’ll even use a term like Orwellian to help.
What does Orwellian even mean?
To summarize, for something to be “Orwellian," it needs to contain propaganda, denial of truth, and lack free thought. What’s interesting is that Orwell despised the term “Orwellian." In his essay Politics in the English Language, he criticizes something like the defending of dropping bombs on counties and the arguments' rhetoric “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" (Politics in the English Language, George Orwell). The term “Orwellian” is incredibly vague when it comes to current events and people who haven't read 1984. To the users, the term Orwellian means “the bad thing I don’t like” and justifies it using the vagueness of the adjective in relation to the themes in the book. The funniest twist is that all of this is happening because a person famous for misinformation and thought control was banned, and now all the groups and individuals who have been spending their lives spreading misinformation are now comparing this action to something they do frequently, which itself is doublethink. It’s astounding. So yes, maybe 2021 is like 1984, but less in government aspects, and more in thought control.
Books are great. Good literature (and film for this matter) can be so powerful that it can be a time machine into the past and present. Fictional literature is a never ending source of knowledge and thought, because inside the book there are messages, morals, and themes for the reader to take away. What makes Orwell such an excellent writer is that he’s also the most horrifying prophet ever. Things in 1984 seem to pop up in our everyday lives now, though I’d argue we do not call all of them Orwellian. What’s best is that we acknowledge the problem and act on it. That’s what Orwell would have likely wanted readers to take away. What makes 1984 such an exceptional novel is that as time passes, the fiction part in “science fiction” of the book slowly gets less fictitious, and we can only hope that through our actions, we can keep it in the fiction section of the library.