Select Page

George Orwell

George Orwell

by William H. Benson

June 1, 2017

     On June 8, 1949, the English author George Orwell published his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. His book continues to startle and warn readers of the dangers of totalitarian governments, and it also identifies what a society will lose once the tyrant denounces intellectual liberty.

     Orwell’s main character is Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, where he revises the historical records to ensure that the past conforms to Big Brother’s ever-changing set of false statistics. Winston also deletes all references to “unpersons,” those that the Party has “vaporized” or eliminated. The victim has not only disappeared, he or she never existed.

     Orwell attached an Appendix to the novel, and in it he explained “Newspeak,” the Inner Party’s attempt to control and limit people’s language. The Party divided language into three vocabularies. The “A” words included those “needed for the business of everyday life, for eating, drinking, and working.”

     The “B” words were compounded words, like “goodthink,” “crimethink,” “doublethink,” “oldthink, and “oldspeak.” Each was a shorthand version of a former idea. For example, Orwell writes, “concepts of liberty and equality were contained in the single word crimethink, and concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink.

     “Words such as honor, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist. A few blanket words covered them, and in covering them abolished them. Greater precision would have been dangerous.”

     The “C” words “consisted of scientific and technical terms.”

     By “Newspeak” and its three vocabularies, the Inner Party dumbed-down people’s skill with language. “The expression of unorthodox opinions was well-nigh impossible. It would have been possible to say, ‘Big Brother is ungood,’ but the necessary words beyond that were no longer available. Its words growing fewer and fewer, their meanings more and more rigid.”

     Big Brother achieved total control by changing historical records, and by diminishing language.

     In Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” he points out how our language has declined. He provides five short quotes, and then says that “two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English, and of any political writing.”  

     Bureaucrats write now by “gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” For example, a party official might say, “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that,” rather than say, “I think.”

     Orwell writes that the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” “Political writing is bad writing.” If it is good writing, then “the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’ Orthodoxy seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”

     In his essay, “Prevention of Literature,” also published in 1946, Orwell argues that the bureaucrats who attack intellectual liberty “always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.” In other words, they see the free-thinker as a single rebel, a heretic, without party affiliation, who needs his or her thinking corrected, and then brought back into the fold. “The issue of truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background.”

     How does a rebel vanquish a Big Brother, a tyrant, a dictator, an Inner Party? Orwell says that it begins with language, with intellectual liberty, and courage. He quotes a Revivalist hymn: “Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose firm. Dare to make it known.”

     The world’s Big Brothers need scientists, lawyers, statisticians, economists, officious clerks, middle managers, generals, lieutenants, and foot soldiers. They may even need easily-bent journalists willing to write the party’s line, but they do not need writers who recognize the truth, and who use Anglo-Saxon words to describe the tyrant’s actions. “He did this.” “She said that.” “This is what I saw.”

     Tyrants do not need historians who base their histories upon facts, upon credible evidence, on eye witness accounts, on testimonies, and on impartial written documents. The historian is like the little child who tells true tales of what happened to whoever will listen, and who dares to open the closet door and point at the skeletons dangling in the closet.

     The Inner Party scared people with the words, “Big Brother is watching you,” but Winston Smith, alone in his dingy apartment, wrote in his diary the “crimethought” words, “Down with Big Brother.”

     June 6, 1944, D-Day, the day the Allies began their assault upon Europe’s Axis powers.