By Anna Ley
Trump’s ascendance to presidency appears to have driven dystopian literature to new heights, from Huxley to Burgess to Zamyatin, whose glass encased one-state society captures the transparency of just how futile the Communist regime was, consolidating an increasing public realisation of the hollow hyperbole of current political language, such as Trump’s declaration as the ‘greatest creator of jobs since God.’
But it was the again-bestseller, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, that specifically skyrocketed in sales. Trump’s own adviser, Kellyanne Conway’s description ‘of alternative facts’ resonates, with frightful familiarity, with the vacuum of knowledge that is the ‘memory hole’ of Orwell’s Oceania in which ‘inconvenient’ news is strained from our memories with a state controlled suction exerted by the ‘Ministry of Thought’. Trump’s speeches carry the rhythms of Orwellian newspeak, ‘Black is White, 2+2=5, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’ which is defined as ‘ambiguous euphemistic language used chiefly in political propaganda’. Its very adoption into our language as a homophone for Kellyanne’s notion of ‘alternative fact’ suggests an increasing awareness of the dangers Orwell posed.
At the core of Orwell’s narrative is the notion of an engineered English language, a vocabulary that is manipulated to ‘not extend but to diminish the range of thought’ as Orwell himself states. Through the concept of Newspeak, Oceania’s language, the state is able to strip back the terms of the dictionary deemed undesirable to Big Brother and consequently to the nation of Oceania, allowing unwanted and potentially threatening notions to be literally unthinkable. The monolithic vocabulary that emerges from this telescoped dictionary of dictatorship was common to the Totalitarianism of Orwell’s time in which the lexicon was contracted to the smallest number of syllables to ensure words are uttered without taking almost any thought, from the simple ‘gestapo’ of the Nazi regime to ‘Commintem’ of Communist International, both akin to ‘Ingsoc’ – Oceania’s name for English Socialism. As Orwell feverishly states in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’: ‘If thoughts can corrupt language, language can corrupt thought.’ If an objection to the language, as depicted through Winston’s keeping of a diary, is a signal of rebellion, then the forced adoption of an alien language may be seen as the suppression of identity and individual expression.
In which case we are forced to consider the current situation of English as a global language, that as more and more native languages become extinct and political discussion is engulfed by the English language are we not endangering the identity of thousands?
Though Big Brother has transcended into the comic consumption of other people’s thoughts and behaviours, darker currents of surveillance today swell beneath the surface. As the most watched country in the world, are we within the omniscient observance of Oceania even today? Surveillance sweeps the UK and the Investigatory Powers Act passed only last November, that legalized numerous hacking possibilities from the security services, was dubbed by Edward Snowden on Twitter, ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of Western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.’ This kind of law is unparalleled by any other Western nation and in its enforcement, people can hear the eerie echoes of Himmler’s Gestapo’s footsteps on every corner, they can see the two-way screens that litter the streets of Orwell’s’ Oceania, omnisciently watching and listening.
Orwell’s novel is a readable reminder of the threat that ‘alternative facts’ place on democracy to those living in an age that just presumes ‘democracy’ will prevail. Living in the technological era, Orwell’s fears of a fluctuating language have transpired in our ability to write, rewrite and delete language for our benefit. And so almost 70 years after its publication, the watchful eye of the Thought Police still looms over our heads, behind the pictures that hang above our beds.
Photograph: Wyrd & Wanderful via Flickr