Mind Control & Doublethink in George Orwell’s 1984
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions… The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a colored poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features… It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran,” (Orwell).
George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984 is set in the year for which it’s named, which was still the distant future when it was first published in 1950. The story follows the life of Winston Smith a member of the Outer Party, which consists mostly of middle class citizens. He lives in Oceania—one of the three Superstates of the world—where he works in the Ministry of Truth, spending his days helping the government rewrite history to keep up with the constantly changing political climate. Through various acts of what his totalitarian government view as being worthy of punishment by extreme torture, Winston serves as one of the few voices of reason in a world that’s corrupt to the core.
Primarily, this essay will focus on the rhetoric Orwell achieves not only through the fictional INGSOC—the English Socialist party of his creation—but of his readers themselves, convincing them of certain untruths (for example, that two and two can, in fact, equal five) showcasing mind control at its finest. In the same vein, I would argue that successful rhetoric itself is, by extension, a form of brainwashing.
George Orwell got his start his start as a journalist, often taking a polemical approach to whatever topic was at hand, meaning he would take the opposite side of some controversial issue and argue against it, a practice rhetoricians call dissoi logoi. He was also a political essayist. Social injustice, war, and democratic socialism are all themes that run throughout his works. And let’s not forget totalitarianism, which is probably the one he’s most famous for. When we talk about rhetoric, we’re talking about language. The two get bundled together because you just can’t have one without the other. In 1984, Orwell introduces a new language called Newspeak. It’s a fictional language created by the government as a means to limit the freedom of a person’s thoughts, thereby hindering any self-expressive emotion that might impede Big Brother’s regime. Any thought that diverges from the Inner Party’s construct is deemed thoughtcrime.
Thoughtcrime, along with Newspeak and doublethink, are each a form of mind control to varying degrees. Orwell explains it this way:
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
For any one who has studied the Sophists of Ancient Greece, these concepts should sound familiar. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say the talented Athenian wordsmiths were like the members of the Inner Party in 1984.
In both situations, we see greedy men in power using a rhetorical sleight-of-hand in order to deceive or otherwise support false reasoning. Neither groups are concerned with truth or justice, but seek power only, feeding off the ignorance of the uneducated. This is where I see a parallel between Sophism and Fascist dictatorship, not that they’re the same thing (far from it) but just that their methods of keeping their students and citizens in control simultaneously serves to keep themselves in power. They are aware of the power of words—how words impress, suppress, or persuade a given audience and they have the authority to achieve it. Speaking of politics, Orwell has another quote that has to do with politics and language. He says,
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (Orwell).
A prime example of a lie made to sound truthful would be the Inner Party’s slogan: the idea that a state of war could mean being at peace, that slavery could mean being free, or being ignorant could mean strength are all fallacious claims. Just like when he says they can make murder sound ‘respectable’—murder, which they call vaporization in the book, is considered to be the acceptable, patriotic course of action for any citizen unwilling or unable to adhere to Party ideals.
Another big connection between Sophism and totalitarianism is the concept of doublethink, which is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Perhaps the best example of this is their proclamation that two plus two equals five. While the citizens of Oceania know that two and two obviously make four, they also concurrently accept Big Brother’s rationale behind how two and two can make five. In the book, Winston mulls it over in his mind and comes to this conclusion,
“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” (Orwell).
This fascinates me because the past is totally changeable in Winston’s world—it’s what he does for a living, rewriting history. So if Big Brother has control over the people’s perception of a particular concept, then it’s only logical that two and two make five, if that’s what Big Brother claims.
It’s the same thing with their branches of government; their names are dichotomous to what they actually deal with: The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies; the Ministry of Plenty with starvation; and the Ministry of Love with torture. Therefore, this is what citizens associate with these words—war means peace, lies can be truthful, torture can come from a place of love, to starve is to have plenty.
But none of this matters if there’s not an audience with open ears ready and willing to take it all in. For the Sophists that was the people in the crowd when they give a speech or the readers of their texts. For Big Brother, it’s the citizens of Oceania, members of both the Inner and Outer Parties. Just like any good rhetorician of Ancient Greece was able to put his thoughts and beliefs into the minds of his audience, so has the government of Oceania with its people. The whole point of giving a speech or writing a rhetorical text—as several noted rhetoricians have explicitly stated—is to get your audience fired up in order to effect some change in the world, and Big Brother does that very successfully.
In the book they have something called Hate Week, which is designed to increase the hatred for the current enemy of the Party, whichever superstate that may be at the time and people get physically and verbally violent. Basically, Hate Week has the power to shift society’s thought process because their whole mode of consciousness is shaped by what the Party tells them.
At the end of the day, the goal is to have the stronger argument, for the person you’re opposing to see your side as the better one, the more logical one, the one they should be on, too.
The way Orwell ends the book is really indicative of all those things. In the final chapter Winston is sitting in the Chestnut Tree Café, thinking back on his time in the Ministry of Love as he looks up at a poster of Big Brother. [Spoiler] The last paragraph reads:
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” (Orwell).