Revisiting 1984: dystopia as a singularity in the human experience
Updated: May 19, 2020
(Thumbnail image from The Milwaukee Independent)
Like many others currently sitting on their couches or staying in bed well into the afternoon, quarantine has afforded me a gratuitous amount of time for reflection on society and myself. We now live in a world where the pandemic has a monopoly over the 24 hour news cycle. Subsequently, I have been reading tweets and hearing more people argue that certain pandemic practices, such as the stay-at-home order and use of contact tracing, are "Orwellian." It seems now is as good a time as ever to re-read George Orwell's 1984 and decide for myself how our own world mimics that of his dystopia.
What I've come to recognize along the way is that the technology which enables surveillance — what most people associated with 1984 — is only a minor piece of what makes the world of Oceania so terrifying. A true dystopia does not merely control your actions, nor does it control your thoughts; it's in the control of your heart where a true dystopia draws its power. Orwell foreshadows this concept early on in the novel through Winston's inner monologue:
"Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by enquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings... They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable."
Yet, Winston's assertion that the heart remains impregnable is shattered by the end: he loves Big Brother. How can the party control Winston's heart? In this post, I argue that they do so by enabling only a single human experience to exist. The procedure for dominating Winston's heart starts well before he is admitted to the Ministry of Love. The party accomplishes this by collapsing elements that make us uniquely human (emotions, language, laws, stories, etc.) into a singularity.
Love and Hatred
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the novel are Orwell's twisted conceptions of love and hate. They do not evoke the same emotional experience that you may have towards your spouse or enemy (if you have any), respectively. Orwell does this because he wants it to be impossible to differentiate between the two ideas. He frames love and hate — which dominate the world he builds — as two ends on a single spectrum: a spectrum of vulnerability. In Winston's world, if you love someone, you are willing to be vulnerable around them; if you hate them, you want to strip them down to their most vulnerable self.
It is not a coincidence that the woman Winston loves the most, Julia, is also the woman he hates the most at the beginning of the novel. During their affair, Winston reminds Julia that he will always love her, but from the onset it's not clear that his love for her is anything beyond the desire to be truly vulnerable in front of another person. Later on, we learn that Julia is not the only person Winston loves:
"A needle slid into Winston’s arm. Almost in the same instant a blissful healing warmth spread all through his body. The pain already half-forgotten. He opened his eyes and looked up gratefully at O’Brien. At sight of the heavy, lined face, so ugly and so intelligent, his heart seemed to turn over... He had never loved him so deeply as at this moment, and not merely because he had stopped the pain."
Orwell expands upon this idea:
"Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood."
Vulnerability and understanding go hand-in-hand. It's about exposing your real thoughts and feelings to another person because, in a way, you love them enough to do so. Winston loves O'Brien, the man that tortures him, as much as he loves Julia because he is his most vulnerable self around them. He yearns to lower his walls for someone that has the capacity to understand. But this is not the same emotion that we recognize as love in our own world. Our love is beyond understanding: it is sacrifice and forgiveness, both of which seem to be missing in Winston's conception of love as his heart betrays Julia in Room 101. It is because, in the world of 1984, love is devoid of any benefits beyond understanding. A person's capacity for sacrifice belongs to the party and the party is the only one that can grant forgiveness.
If the party can control love, then it can also control its opposite. This is what makes it is so easy for the party to rile up its members during the Two Minutes Hate. Any capacity they have for love is manipulated and channeled toward Eurasia/Eastasia and Goldstein.
Orwell decided to be incredibly on-the-nose in his discussion of Newspeak, the language being developed by the party. Syme, one of Winston's colleagues tasked with creating the 11th Newspeak dictionary, proudly proclaims that Newspeak is the only language where the vocabulary shrinks every year.
"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."
The reason for doing this? To rid the English language of any nuance it might have, which subsequently makes it easier to control the narrative, thoughts, and emotions of Oceania's citizens.
"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
Minimizing one's vocabulary dually minimizes their capacity for rhetoric, leading to less variance in the thoughts of party members. But beyond removing their ability to think differently, the party also removes their ability to process emotions differently, further facilitating manipulation of its members. Nuance in language is a cornerstone for protecting one's unique thoughts and emotions. Without it, every person is the protagonist of the same story.
Crime and Punishment
The only crime in Orwell's world is thoughtcrime and the only punishment is to be sent to the Ministry of Love. His world is devoid of all laws because their existence would serve as guideposts for how to live. If Big Brother truly wants to control how you live, then it needs to be done by enacting only one law: it is a crime to behave in a manner that is discordant with party values. But they choose to take it one — no — two steps further. Not only is it illegal to think about something of which the party disapproves, it is even illegal to feel the emotion that caused you to have that thought in the first place. "Thoughtcrime" and "Thought Police" are misnomers, then. The true crime is betraying Big Brother with your heart.
This is further reinforced by Orwell's convergence of love and hatred into a single emotion. It is simple; you either love Big Brother (in the way they want you to love) or you do not. And one of those decisions will send you to the Ministry of Love where they will force you to make the right decision the second time around. This idea is what makes the power they yield so absolute.
There is convergence in intent on a couple levels in the novel. At the lowest level is its removal from the legal system entirely. Whether or not you intended to commit a crime no longer matters so long as it was felt within your heart. This idea has already been discussed in the previous section.
The second level is convergence in the intent of the Inner Party members. Specifically, the only way that the Orwell's dystopia can function is recognizing the pursuit of power as the final goal of the party itself. There is no other way for the government of Oceania to survive in its current form.
"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites."
As O'Brien states, intent does not matter in the pursuit of power for the Inner Party.
"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. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."
The only intent that really exists in Orwell's world is the pursuit of power. We can view the unification of intent as an unstable equilibrium, a form of governance that sits precariously upon a peak, that can only maintained by the existence of doublethink. It is of paramount importance that an Inner Party member can hold two incongruous realities to be simultaneously true. Otherwise, the pursuit of power for its own sake will be questioned. Why else does the party care that it can make you believe 2 + 2 = 5 if it isn't true? (or is it?) Absolute truth will become prioritized over the party, which would lead its demise. If the party is to stay alive, the only truth is the one they promote.
Narrative and Free Will
The Ministry of Truth controls the past and the present through the manipulation of information. By doing so, they create a single narrative that always was and always will be true.
"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
Why does this matter? Because, in many ways, the story a person believes is how they exercise free will. Religion does not exist in Winston's world (notably, Winston returns to the kid's song about the bells of St. Clement's and other churches nearby that have since been converted into wartime factories), so an individual is left to define free will based on the world around them. If we believe that the world is deterministic and filled with hidden local variables that explain everyday phenomena, then in many ways free will is illusory. Similarly, if the world is quantum, then it is a random process we have no control over. The narrative that we choose to believe is the enabler of free will in Orwell's dystopia. But even that is controlled by the party. There is only a single story worth telling in this world because it is the only one that has ever existed and will ever exist.
Conclusion: where do we see this in our own world?
The upshot of all this is that surveillance only scratches the surface of the dystopian world painted by Orwell. The telescreen, while a dangerous technological arm of the Thought Police, is not the underpinning for a true dystopia. The true dystopia lives within the hearts of Oceania's citizens, including the members of the Inner Party. So, if we want to identify places in our own lives where dystopian creep occurs, it starts will looking at technologies that pull on our emotions and eliminate variance in the human experience.
Let's consider the algorithms that dictate our daily media consumption. Are digital platforms curating our emotions? Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, and Disney (to name a few) all use algorithmic decision making in deciding what content to present to you and how to present it. One might think that content curation is a far-cry from emotional manipulation, but Facebook notoriously proved that they could do exactly that a few years ago merely by changing what users saw on their News Feed. If we want to draw out the analogy to 1984 a little further, we could interpret Facebook's pursuit of power as an act of doublethink; Zuckerberg believes he can solve society's problems by expanding Facebook's power, even though it can argued that the problems being solved were created by Facebook's size and scale in the first place.
Additionally, in order to simplify decision-making, many platforms use ranking systems that are entirely devoid of nuance. You either like the movie Netflix recommended or you do not. Facebook only gives you a few options for expressing your emotions about a post (outside of the comments section). Reddit has an upvote/downvote system and only a few ways of sorting posts graded by said system. This practice is ubiquitous across the entire internet.
In contrast, contact-tracing and the stay at home order hardly appear pernicious through the dystopian lens crafted by Orwell. Your actions are being controlled and, to an extent, you are being surveilled, but your experiences are still your own. You have the liberty of crafting your own narrative regarding why you follow (or don't follow) the stay at home order. You still get to use whatever language you want to express whatever emotions you are feeling about the pandemic. And you can continue living with the principles you create for yourself.
The real danger of 1984 is not that the government knew where Winston was at all times; it is that the rebellion he carried in his heart could never survive, nor is it clear that the rebellion was even his own creation. Yes, the telescreens were important for identifying his sentiment toward the party, but that was only a minor part of the equation. What he gives Big Brother by relinquishing all individual privacy plays second fiddle in this dystopia to what Big Brother gives him: a life curated by the party.