It's Crazy How '1984' Predicted Everything the Other Side Is Doing
The right's 'doublethink,' the left's 'Newspeak,' and the exhaustion of Orwell.
I propose a new rule for internet decorum, a la Godwin’s Law of the Hitler Exponent, and thus it reads: If each of two opposing sides in an argument has reached the point where it can justifiably invoke “1984” (or the imputative “Orwellian”) to declaim the other, both must take a timeout and do some soul searching.
This standard may seem harsh, yet it’s never been more necessary because, like the final chancellor of the Weimar Republic, an invidious Orwell comparison lurks only a few steps into almost every contemporary argument.
We’re at a special moment in our culture war in which the social media soldiers of both Oceania and Eurasia (or is it Eastasia?) are astutely calling out the sinister bullshit being committed by the other side, but not, shock of shocks, by its own. And while each side plays a slightly different game, both take more cues from the Orwell playbook than their indignation would suggest.
Let’s start with the right.
What once viewed itself as an ideological movement (what were they called? con… conservationists? conservators?) now prostrates itself before the whims and temperament of one man. For many, falling in line means jettisoning old ideals and even suspending the testimony of their own senses. It means doublethink: the mental trick of switching from one conviction to its arithmetic opposite (Orwell also called it “Blackwhite”) in order to remain loyal to the leader’s ever-changing version of the truth, however loathsome or absurd. War is peace. Wisdom is ignorance. That gas that made peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square tear up in order to make way for Robert Trump’s big brother wasn’t tear gas.
Lying and hypocrisy are of course inevitable in government. But the devertebration of conservatives has been so dazzlingly swift that within less than four years we’ve witnessed their total ideological capsizing: Remember when a president’s moral character mattered? Remember when Republicans celebrated international trade? Or abhorred Federal overreach and defended states’ rights? (How fond they were of quoting Orwell to condemn Obama’s big government! Ideology is something Neo-Bolshevism did away with too.)
The litany of casual about-faces goes on, from Lindsey Graham’s stance (should I add scare quotes?) on impeachments, to Ted Cruz’s Schrödingerian super-position regarding Russian interference in 2016, to Rand Paul’s vanishing defense of whistleblowers, to Mitch McConnell’s fitful stand on appointing judges in an election year.
And where the lie hasn’t yet fully passed into history to become truth, Republicans, in good Soviet fashion, have trained themselves to unsee deranged and heinous behavior when the perpetrator is The Gardener of Human Happiness. The president sent armed troops to clear out citizens exercising their first amendment right? “Didn’t really see it.” He accused a 75-year-old man who’d been assaulted by an armored cop of being a domestic terrorist? “I don’t read Twitter!”
Meanwhile, the left…
…has adopted its own Orwell-y trick: redefining language to the point where nothing means anything and everything you say can and will be used against you.
Activists and politicians alike are energetically inflating the definitions of politically-sensitive words and phrases (and even gestures) to the point where their meaning is no longer recognized by general usage, but determined by a tiny coterie of self-proclaimed experts. At the same time, this new vocabulary is supercharged with binary moral valiance: you either use these words the way we say, or we’ll unperson you.
“Abolish the police” doesn’t mean “to formally put an end to” policing, and you’re woefully ignorant, if not racist, if you take it literally. (Though if you don’t take it literally you’re socially irresponsible and possibly racist.) When, for example, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, following the dictionary definition of the word, had the temerity to tweet that “‘abolish the police’ seems like a poorly thought out idea,” he was put through an expedited process of reeducation-by-Twitter-outrage (supplemented by appeals to Angela Davis). He ultimately confessed and begged forgiveness for his tweet crimes.
The term “antiracism,” the innocent-sounding moniker of the worldview espoused by bestselling authors like corporate-diversity guru Robin DiAngelo and historian-cum-activist Dr. Ibram X Kendi, is itself an example of the left’s language game. Even without delving into their respective works (the two aren’t, in my view, of remotely the same stature, but plenty has already been written to this effect), it’s easy to see the power of their position: who doesn’t want to be anti-racist?
But what they mean by the phrase isn’t merely opposition to racism, but the espousal of stringent programs (they differ on the specifics: DiAngelo exists in the corporate-friendly self-help genre, whereas Kendi targets government policy). But to question the efficacy of the solutions (and worldview) they propose is to risk being labelled a proper racist. Both authors make this binary explicit.
DiAngelo completely rejects the prole notion that “if you are against racism then you are not racist.” As long as you benefit from a system that privileges white normativity, you’re racist. She insists that, given her Delphic definition of racism, readers should not be offended if she concludes that “all white people are racist.”
Orwell in “Politics and The English Language” expressed his dim view of academic words that “dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” The problem isn’t that phrases like “antiracism” muddy and confuse language (small price to pay for social justice). It’s that they’re meant to confuse, a shibboleth for the enlightened to recognize each other and trap offenders.
What about the kids?
Next on the INGSOC agenda is of course winning the minds of children, ideally replacing the bond between friends and family with loyalty to the movement.
First, white parents, ridden by their white, liberal guilt, are appealing to the oracle wisdom of digital news outlets to learn how to turn their children into good antiracists: eating foreign cuisine at age 6 is a good start, as long as the diet is undergirded by intellectual ballast, like the works of Dr. Kendi and DiAngleo, or Black Panther.
The kids can then prove their enlightened fidelity to the cause by turning on each other. High schoolers who organize to doxx and shame fellow students on social media are all but lionized by The New York Times, provided that the doxxing and shaming are done in the name of justice.
Teenagers caught on camera displaying “problematic behavior” (to use The Times’ Newspeak style guide) can expect to find their personal information, including their “full names, school information, social media profiles, contact information, [and] the college they plan to attend,” made public on widely-spread social media blacklists.
“People who go to college end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs,” one teenager told The Times.
“Someone rly started a Google doc of racists and their info for us to ruin their lives. i love Twitter,” tweeted another.
Others said that it’s about “educating” the underaged offenders, or to “prove to them that actions have consequences.”
The problematic behavior being called out by The Junior Spies of antiracism is generally limited to speechcrimes, such as saying the N-Word and the malediction “All Lives Matter.”
If for the right chasing power means merging with the leader’s will, for the left it means the constant purging of wrongthink. But do those purges really bring us closer to a more equitable society? If our goal is racial, gender, and economic fairness, why aren’t news sites recommending economist Thomas Sowell’s studies on the root causes of inequality instead of DiAngelo’s new age preening? Why are journalists who spent their careers exposing injustice being cancelled? Why are innocent people — including people of color, as Yascha Mounk pointed out last week — having their lives destroyed by rage mobs?
To quote Mr. Blair, “power is the end of power,” but in the case of some of the left’s loudest culture warriors, it’s not about who is really the victim and who the oppressor; it’s about who gets to decide which is which.
Political hellscape aside, the saturation of Orwell allusions signals that it’s time to retire them altogether, not least because we’ve all, it seems, developed a soft tolerance to the totalitarians on our side. The least we can do is come up with new references.
It reminds me of Christopher Hitchens vowing as he travelled to Prague to write his counter-Revolutionary dispatches that he shall not make any Kafka references, only to be almost immediately upon landing arrested by secret police without cause or explanation; “totalitarianism itself is a cliché,” he later wrote, as references to Josef K. begged to burst out of his pen.
Vanessa’s comment: I would DEF like to extend the no-Orwell rule to journalists covering the tech sector… Orwell clichés should be allowed to die. As should also the phrase "surveillance capitalism.”
Adaam & Vanessa—
I love it! Yes and so many yeses! I especially love the question you posed regarding reading Thomas Sowell. Everything about his life, his time at Cornell, his career, his race, his success, and the hatred he senselessly suffers from the Left was like a perfect little secret bomb that exploded midway of essay. So so good. In a bomb-nutshell, he encapsulates so much of your point. And of course Christopher Hitchens too.
Believe it or not, I actually think you went kinda soft and too easy on the Right. Which, I know, is quite contrarian of me given my own unquenchable leaning toward condemning the Left. It’s probably my guilt for feeling this – I definitely feel more vitriol toward the Left since I think every counter-position is effectively created by the first position. Duh. How could it not be? The Left effectively gives us the madness of the Right. Do we really want more of that! But the same is true of the Right. Their stupidity, madness, and dissociation give us the madness of the Left. Do we really want that! But the point is not to name call the other, but to grapple with the way in which our own affiliations are inadvertantly creating our worst nightmares in the other. This, I think is why I'm so hard and incensed with the Left. Because I live in greater affiliation with them in most things.
The most interesting thing I find personally about the post is your Orwell frame.
And let me preface by saying that you may be tempted, as I myself am, to think that I keep referencing Neil Postman in just about every conversation I have these days because I recently reread Amusing Ourselves to Death. It is actually the opposite: I re-read that book recently because I remembered that it actually had already defined back in 1985 what I had finally put together in my own way of seeing it just now!
Like Postman, you and Vanessa are calling for an end to Orwellian labeling – but for different reasons.
Postman argues that Orwell was wrong but Huxley was right! At least for America, Orwellian metaphor never did or never would truly be applicable. Big brother does not need to watch us, Postman writes, we are busy enough watching him by choice.
But rather, Huxley’s prediction is in fact what we are seeing now. Forget seeing! We’re so far in it, we can’t discern any more than a fish can discern water. Namely, that we are so busy laughing, that we do not think. Now the laughing is a metaphor for that which has replaced serious thinking. And for Postman, and I agree, it is TV and the entertainment epistemology that has replaced serious thinking— now fully realized in an entire social media and all media culture that is not even noticeable.
Huxley, yes. Orwell? No.
There is no need for the control. The damage is already done.
Orwell, at this point, is just part of the entertainment quality of further dividing us. Blaming each other, even in cliché, is much more amusing than having to do the whole, complex, hard work of reading Thomas Sowell to find out that the 1960s civil rights hurt African Americans economically and socially even though legally it was indeed progress. And that is only one little tiny issue. There are so many others. But no need to control my mind. I’ve got fun little gadgets and an entire cultural addiction to TV that has already done that. I don’t even know that there are any books out there that I’m missing. It’s all summarized by my drug of choice— sorry, I mean network or magazine of choice.
And that was what I really meant the other day when I said that journalism should handle the human condition. I wasn’t being sweet or naïve. I was indicating that even journalism (all: print and tv and now internet) redefined itself to follow the rules and way of the quintessential TV commercial: short, sweet, fragmented, half true (and therefore false) to make you buy some shit and giggle doing it. And the TV way is that the customer MUST feel helpless! If you don’t feel helpless, you can’t keep buying. And so every political problem feels impossible- not because it actually is impossible. Most problems are actually easier to solve than we presume for a civilized culture of today. But the feeling that they’re all impossible is both created and perpetuated by the half-truth-narrative-based-shit-show that is our public discourse.
Nevertheless, I do not totally despair, just to be sure. The answer lies within blogs like this. Education. Etc. But practically we must choose to argue from complexity — as we do here— rather than from reductionist and tribal positions. Maybe it will catch. Even if it doesn’t, people can learn it. And besides, this way is so much more fun than tribalism.