Doublespeak — prisoners as ‘detainees’ — straight from the novel



Published 12:00 am, Sunday, October 1, 2017


I had a dream the other night.

In it, I was a member of the ruling political party in London, in a nation called Oceana. Everywhere I went the Party was watching me — even in my own house through telescreens. Everyone I knew had a telescreen, a television through which our leader could see us and talk to us directly. And when I walked outside, the picture of our leader, known to us as Big Brother, was everywhere. He was, in effect, omniscient.

In my dream, the Party controlled not only our actions but our thoughts, our history and our language, which we called Newspeak and which was intended to prevent political rebellion by eliminating words that might lead up to it.

The worse of all crimes was having rebellious thoughts, or thoughtcrime, for it was these that led to rebellious actions.

I worked for the Minister of Truth, where we altered historical records to fit the agenda of the Party. When we went to war with Euroasia, we wrote history to make Eastasia our enemy; and when we went to war with Eastasia, we altered history to make Eurasia our enemy. It was when I questioned this history that I was sent to a “rehabilitation class” on doublethink, where I was taught to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas and believe them both, such as believing war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

Through doublespeak, Big Brother lied and got away with it because people had lost the ability to choose and interpret facts. It was only when I believed that the Department of War is really the Department of Peace that I was released. After this, I was totally convinced that peace is war and war is peace.

It was here that I woke up with a cold sweat, but thankful that this had only been a dream.

Those who have read George Orwell’s “1984” will immediately know that I was projecting myself as the novel’s chief character, Winston Smith, and that the society I was experiencing was a fictional account of the 1940s and the nationalist movements that rose up throughout Europe. Orwell observed that all these movements led to nondemocratic governments with some super hero at the top — such as Hitler, Stalin, Franco and Mussolini.

With the rise of these leaders came the horrors of an emotional nationalism that thrived on the removal of an objective truth that would be expunged through doublespeak and thus allow them to use their power at will.

My rejoicing, however, did not last long.

Was I also dreaming about prisoners today being called “detainees,” or firing people being called “downsizing,” the killing of innocent people called “collateral damage,” or torture being called “enhanced interrogation”? Were these merely innocent euphemisms aimed at softening a harsh reality, or do they have the more sinister objective of allowing Big Brother to use power that would otherwise be denied?

Was it also a dream that Donald Trump is attempting, like Big Brother, to be the only ultimate source of “truth”? Isn’t Trump’s discrediting of newspapers and the television media by claiming they deal with “fake news” an attempt to make people believe that the only truth lies in his tweets?

Trump has convinced the weak-minded that only he speaks the truth because only he “knows what other people don’t,” that he knows “more than the generals” and other public officials. And he has convinced people that despite the dissonance, doublespeak is the truth.

After his electoral victory, for example, Trump talked about America’s role in promoting democracy in the world. “We are getting out of the nation-building business,” he said emphatically. But then he said he would “work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions.”

These are two opposing thoughts, which most people would accept despite their divergent views — doublespeak in its classic form, for despite your views, Trump ends up telling a truth.

A key point in “1984” is that he who controls information controls people’s thoughts, and when objective truth is discredited we are at the mercy of those who define it.

How can we wake up from this dream?

Fernando Pinon is a professor of political science at San Antonio College. He is the author of “Searching for America in the Streets of Laredo.”

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