Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited, Part II:
What Orwell Can Still Teach Us
3. The Denial of Reality and the Control of Language
O’Brien seems to speak for today’s Left when he tells Winston Smith that “[i]t is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be” (p. 267). Why is this? Why does it so enrage Leftists that somewhere, someone is disagreeing with them? Why must they crush all dissent? Fundamentally, there are two answers to this question.
On one level, of course, both the Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Leftists around us need to crush dissent in order to maintain power and control. Dissenting views are a threat to their authority. The mere fact that someone might dare to speak up and disagree with Leftist orthodoxy is a dangerous indication that their control may be slackening. And what if others are persuaded by dissenting views, and repeat them? The Leftist desire for uniformity of thought is thus in large measure simply a matter of maintaining power. And this is certainly the primary reason O’Brien and the Party ruthlessly crush all dissent. After all, we saw in the previous installment that, according to O’Brien, the Party seeks power purely for its own sake.
However, there is a deeper reason for Leftist intolerance, one which Orwell can also help us understand. Indeed, his discussion of this matter is one of the most profound aspects of the novel. Leftists find the existence of dissenting thoughts intolerable because their own worldview is a tissue of lies that must be maintained by never allowing themselves to face reality. Dissenting voices call their attention to facts, and therefore must be suppressed. It is as if Leftists have constructed an alternate reality in which to live. At some level, they are dimly aware that their views cannot withstand critical scrutiny (because, at some level, they are dimly aware of facts that contradict it). So, such scrutiny must be silenced or prevented from ever getting off the ground.
In my essay “What is the Metaphysics of the Left?,” I stated that Leftism requires the elimination of objective reality as a standard against which beliefs can be judged. This effectively means that the subjective is elevated to absolute status. What is given primacy in Leftist metaphysics is subjective states: beliefs, feelings, sentiments, wishes, hopes, and dreams. Hence the constant emphasis on changing or manipulating the “messages” people receive (as if changing these will change reality), or the words they use. Subjective states are not evaluable according to any standard independent of subjectivity, since that has been denied. For Leftists, the only thing that can check the subjectivity of individuals is the collective subjectivity of groups. Hence the emphasis the Left places on policing the thought, speech, and actions of everybody, especially its own.
What O’Brien tells Winston Smith while torturing him expresses much the same idea:
Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane. [p. 261]
Some readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four find O’Brien’s remarks to Winston quite baffling. One commenter on this Website even refers to them as “nonsense.” On one level this is true, since the Party’s philosophy is completely irrational – and yet it is consciously irrational, and used as a means of oppression. Early in the novel, Winston is writing in his diary and Orwell describes his chain of thought as follows:
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. [p. 83]
This passage strikes rather close to home, since the Leftists in our midst, who wield enormous power and influence, have not only abandoned common sense but imposed stiff penalties on heretics who dare to invoke it. Winston writes in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows” (p. 84). This is one of the most famous lines in the novel. It is deceptively simple, and it may be the most important lesson Orwell has to teach us. The “freedom to say that two plus two make four” is, of course, the freedom to speak the truth. More than this, it is the freedom to speak the most basic truths – which the Party, and our own Leftists, have denied us. The most basic freedom imaginable is the freedom to recognize and honor that which is; to recognize reality, and to live in accord with it. Fundamentally, this is the freedom to be a human being, since we are the beings who confront what is, and give voice to it; i.e., speak the truth. (See my essay “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origin of the Human Spirit,” reprinted in What is a Rune? and Other Essays.)
In the Ministry of Love, O’Brien tries to brainwash Winston into believing that two plus two equals five. O’Brien makes his motives clear, as discussed in the first installment of this series: It is all about power for its own sake. O’Brien does not actually believe that two plus two make five. He brainwashes Winston, and others, into believing it as part of a larger agenda: to completely destroy all independent thought. (Recall that Goldstein had said that this was one of the Party’s two principal objectives; see p. 202.) To think independently means to think independently of the thoughts of others. But this is only possible if one can appeal to a standard that exists independent of what people think. This standard is objective reality. Hence, to control thought, the Party (and our own Leftists) must not only attempt to discredit the very idea of objective reality, but to train people never even to consider the possibility of engaging in anything other than groupthink. They must come to believe, just as O’Brien says, that “Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth.” To achieve this would be to achieve absolute power since, as O’Brien remarks, “power is power over human beings” (p. 277).
While O’Brien’s motives are clear and unambiguous, those of the Leftists in our midst are murkier. Certainly, their fragile worldview requires that common sense be suppressed lest they be “triggered.” At the same time, however, there is indeed a strong element of O’Brien in these people, a strong element of seeking power for its own sake. As a useful example, consider the case of transgenderism. Yes, the Leftist ideology demands that there be no fixed identities, so that one can be a man or woman simply because one “identifies” as such; facts of reality, such as biological facts, are simply declared irrelevant. On the other hand, transgender narcissists and the Leftists who support them seem to be deriving a good deal of perverse satisfaction from intimidating sensible people into using pronouns incorrectly and pretending that they actually believe that Jack is Jill. Foolish commitment to a false ideology is clearly not all there is to the Left. We have all registered the strong undercurrent of hate; of ressentiment. Leftism is the power-seeking strategy of people who feel themselves fundamentally unfit for life.
Orwell clearly frames O’Brien’s denial of objective reality as a logical consequence (an extreme consequence) of modernity’s “subjective turn.” O’Brien tells Winston, “Already our control over matter is absolute.” When Winston expresses skepticism at this, O’Brien states, “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. . . . You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of nature” (p. 277). I remember years ago encountering a Left-wing academic (needless to say, a professor in the humanities) who told me she had no idea what the term “nature” meant. You see, like so many academics, she was a nominalist who believed there are no “natural kinds,” and that human beings “construct” the “nature” they find around them, according to certain preconceptions. (For more on nominalism, see my essay “What is the Metaphysics of the Right?”.)
Winston responds by accusing O’Brien of exaggerating mankind’s importance in the scheme of things, saying, “For millions of years the earth was uninhabited.” “Nonsense,” O’Brien replies, “The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.” Here again Orwell has hit on one of the more bizarre implications of Leftist ideology (which is, again, just a radicalization of the mindset of modernity): the notion of man as omnipotent; the all-powerful human cosmocrator, who “constructs” the world just as he sees fit, unencumbered (so he thinks) by any troublesome things-in-themselves. O’Brien, and the Leftists around us, are essentially followers of Protagoras, who famously said that “man is the measure of all things.” “What are the stars?” O’Brien asks Winston. “They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and stars go round it” (p. 278).
One of the most important tools the Party uses in its program to obliterate belief in objective reality is the control of language. In his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Principles of Newspeak,” Orwell tells us that all words having to do with objectivity and rational thought were eliminated by the Party and categorized collectively as oldthink. This term could easily be adopted by today’s Leftists, especially postmodernist academics, who have indeed dismissed objectivity and rationality as the “racist” remnants of an outdated patriarchy. Orwell makes clear that the point of eliminating such words is not, primarily, the control of speech but the control of thought. Since all higher level, abstract thought depends upon language, the elimination of certain words would seem (in theory, at least) to make certain thoughts impossible. Orwell writes in his Appendix:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. [p. 312]
Thus, words such as “honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science and religion had simply ceased to exist” (p. 318). Of course, the flaw in this theory is that new ideas always arrive before there are words adequate to express them – which is why some of the greatest philosophers have had to invent new vocabularies. Thus, it is still possible that the ideas expressed by these forgotten words could reconstitute themselves. Belief in this possibility presupposes a number of things. First, it presupposes that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human thought naturally tends in certain directions. Ultimately, it presupposes that there is such a thing as a human good, towards which reflection will inevitably carry us. This is a crucial point. And Orwell does seem to believe that this is the case: In a later installment of this series, we will discuss his faith in a human “ancestral memory” (Orwell’s own choice of words) which inevitably causes human beings to be repulsed, at a deep level, by the world the Party offers them and to yearn, if only subconsciously, for something better.
In order for the Party’s plan to work, Newspeak would have to be so radically impoverished that human thought would be limited to little more than an animal level; providing only as much vocabulary as is needed to perform the drudgeries to which each worker is assigned, and to satisfy basic needs. In addition to this, of course, there would be the ideological vocabulary of the Party, and its various slogans. Parallels to the Left’s present hegemony are fairly obvious. In the 1990s, “political correctness” was particularly preoccupied with the transformation of language. “African-American,” instead of “black” (which had, in turn, replaced the somehow-newly-offensive “negro”); “people of color” instead of “colored people”; “differently abled” instead of “disabled” or “handicapped” (which had replaced “crippled”); “special” instead of “retarded,” and so on. Classically Orwellian terms such as “hate speech” and “hate crime” were also introduced.
This aspect of political correctness was widely ridiculed, and some of these Newspeak terms have disappeared down the memory hole over the last twenty years or so. In fact, examples such as these, as amusing as they may be, are fundamentally trivial. The narrowing of education, especially in Britain and America, provides us with a much more significant parallel to the Party’s objectives in establishing Newspeak. With the decline of education in the humanities, and the refocusing of higher education on “career preparation,” today’s students are only trained to think within a narrow range. Barely literate, their education has consisted primarily in memorizing information in preparation for taking exams. Students have been positively discouraged from engaging in critical thought. My friends in academia report that today’s students respond to even simple intellectual problems as if they are being asked to think for the first time in their lives. But professors who challenge students to think are becoming increasingly rare. Instead of introducing students to different options for living life and for viewing the world, courses in the humanities have now been substantially given over to political indoctrination.
The net effect is roughly the same as what O’Brien’s Party aims for: Human thought is limited to the mundanities of everyday life, which are accepted without question. Citizens are force-fed ready-made, officially approved interpretations of life and of the social world, which they question at great personal risk – and most never will question these things, even if complete liberty were granted them. They not only lack the vocabulary to do so, they have no familiarity with any alternative perspectives from philosophy, literature, or history. It is made very clear that social advancement is possible only to those who do not question the official ideology, and so most are heavily preoccupied with being seen to obey; with signaling virtue in various ways. Again, however, the truly frightening thing about this situation is not that men are being cowed into keeping silent; it is that the vast majority of them would have nothing to say, even if they were free to speak. The capacity for independent thought appears to have been destroyed in a significant number of them. Thankfully, not in all.
It is not hard to grasp the real evil of this system, which is only superficially different from that portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Since thought is what characterizes us as a species, the aim of the Party is really to stamp out human nature; to dehumanize. It is no good saying that most people, even in freer days, have never used their minds. The Party feels threatened by the small number who do. Thus, it is the most intelligent and perceptive of human beings who are targeted for oppression. (I am reminded of Pol Pot executing people for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.) As for the others, the Party creates a situation in which whatever potential they may have for thought, however meager, can never be actualized. Further, as I have already noted, human thought aims at the good: we seek to know and to pursue what is good for us. The Party aims to suppress all independent thought precisely because it wants us to accept a social and political situation that is detrimental to our physical, spiritual, and psychological flourishing. The Party wants to make sure that we never know the good, and thus that we accept and remain in conditions that stunt human nature. This is the ultimate evil.
In the next installment I will continue this discussion with an exploration of what Orwell means by “doublethink” (his analysis, in effect, of “normie” psychology). We will also explore the Party’s war on the past, and its relevance to contemporary Leftist madness.
 I will employ intertextual references to the following edition: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992).
 Here, in this line, we find the key to why the ideology of Eastasia (which is essentially identical to that of Ingsoc) is referred to as “Obliteration of the Self.”
 The news has recently provided us with a shining example of Leftist linguistic folly. The city of San Francisco has declared that it will no longer refer in official communications to “felons,” calling them instead “justice-involved persons.” “Delinquents” will now be referred to as “young persons impacted by the juvenile justice system.” The method in this madness is, again, to deny real distinctions. The term “justice-involved person” could also refer, needless to say, to a victim of a crime who has sought redress through the police and courts. Thus, the adoption of this new terminology serves to obliterate the distinction between criminals and victims, between the guilty and the innocent.