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Every Open Eye: The Twin Terrors and Misinterpretations of 1984

It’s difficult these days to make it through any kind of political discussion on television or social media without somebody referencing George Orwell’s 1984. “Orwellian” has become almost a synonym for “dystopic”. The problem is once a work has saturated pop culture in the way that Orwell's has (there is a nine-section Wikipedia page dedicated only to "Nineteen Eighty-Four in popular culture" that captures what I imagine to be the tip of the iceberg), the more diluted the message becomes. This has been discussed before, in the vein of "why don't all these plebian alarmists actually read the Great American Novel they are referencing". But convincing people to read the novel is not the endgame, because part of Orwell's brilliance is that you easily can interpret the book to suit your own agenda, and probably will. This is because there are two distinct frameworks that construct the dystopia of 1984, and focusing on one of them to the exclusion of the other reconstructs the novel entirely.

The first idea, and the one that is most often referenced by a long shot, is surveillance. 1984 describes a world where everyone is monitored constantly by screens, and, panopticon-like, by each other. Big Brother is always watching. It's right on the surface of the novel and allows the events of the book to unfold underneath it. It's also the easiest to immediately disavow - of course, people should be entitled to a private life. Of course, raising small children to turn in their parents for unpatriotic behavior is bad. But it also reduces the complexity of living under surveillance to "don't do anything wrong" and ignores the possibility of surveillance for capitalistic gain, which is much, much closer to our current reality - and by closer, I mean a direct reflection of how much of our data is sold to companies we have never heard of on a daily basis. We already live under surveillance, but it is not one looming, monolithic eye that does so, and therefore much harder to understand why, and if/when it becomes a problem. Instead, we can point our finger at whoever we decide we do not want looking, call them "Big Brother", and ignore everyone else for our own peace of mind.

Of course, in 1984, the surveillance cannot be based on capitalistic gain, because 1984 is about communism. Or is it? 1984 is about scarcity, certainly, and economic hardships of a nation continuously at war (the opposition switches every few years, of course, but there is always a war on, somewhere), but healthcare? Community relief? A social safety net? None of these exist in the novel. In fact, the wealth is controlled by a few powerful Ministries who rule over the lower classes - the "proles" - and leave them with scraps. Just because the mythical idea of the Capitalist in a top hat is proposed as a cultural boogeyman and the basis for the new government goes by the title Ingsoc ("English Socialism) does not automatically adhere the novel to any real economic model. Despite what the book asserts about using language to change and control reality, naming something "socialism" does not make it so.

This brings us to the second framework upon which Orwell has constructed his dystopia: the permeability of truth. Winston’s entire livelihood in the novel depends upon his work of rewriting history. He changes records, forges documents, and creates entire people that do not exist while erasing others from the archives. For Orwell, this work is not just about convincing people to accept a certain reality. He is imagining a network of re-tellings so complete that the facts themselves are changed at will. If there is no record of a thing, Orwell asks, how can we say with any certainty that it existed at all?

The obvious answer is our own memory: if we remember something, it happened. But we were able to discount our own memories, Orwell proposes that a change in thought could trigger a change in reality. In short, reality becomes permeable when thought is limited. Once reality becomes permeable, the act of creating narrative becomes the peak of possible political power. The real terror of Big Brother lies not in the ways he can watch you, but in the way your actions, observed or not, are limited by your own sense of what is possible. Surveillance is not a permanent solution: self-surveillance is. And a mass forgetting of what it means not to be surveilled is half the work done.

This is where Orwell makes his leap from thought to language: by working in the concept of Newspeak, a dialect meant to “cut language down to the bone”, he suggests that limiting ambiguities and extremes in language would do the same for thoughts. As Syme, one of the creators of the Newspeak Dictionary explains, “The Revolution will be complete once the language is perfect.” The language is what ensures orthodoxy – if there is no way to verbalize the concept of dissension, there is no dissension. “Orthodoxy,” Orwell writes, “means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

By focusing on surveillance and crying Big Brother – or more often, Big Government – we forget that the other building block of Orwell’s world is blind acceptance of the permeability of truth: that truth is what you decide it is, that certain figures are allowed to create truth out of whatever they wish. Without both of these lenses trained on the text, we as the reader lack depth perception. We can’t see the more dangerous elements of 1984 coming straight for us – a post-truth era that suppresses dissent not only through surveillance but through blatant dismissal of facts.

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