Simple Lessons from Orwell's 1984 to James Holmes 2012
The other day I was cleaning out my books trying to get rid of some, put them in a large cardboard box that I’d drag over to the thrift store. It wasn’t easy. I even worked to get my son and daughter to clear out their stock, thinking that many of their books are for very young children, picture books of all kinds. But then we started going through the stash and running our hands over the hard covers and shiny pages. We were transported to the memories of reading: rainy days, cozy nights, cuddling or alone under a night light… and the lessons we together picked out of each story over giggles and questions and thought. (Enemy Pie, by the way, was kept of course.)
That's when I found 1984 by George Orwell. Mine is a small battered copy with yellowed pages and that strange type face that clutters the page and the book smell had long been replaced by dust mite and sneezing. My flip flops dropped to the floor and I sat way back on my leather recliner (the one I bought while breastfeeding my youngest darling… the one chair that floats) and I started reading. George Orwell again and it wasn’t really by accident since I had just finished quoting the author for a piece I was writing for Pat, a piece called Why I Write, Ode to Joan, George and Ellie which will be published on her site sometime next week. All of this to say, the classic work 1984 was placed into my hand by purposeful chance.
As I slid into Orwell’s future world, which as you already know is more prophecy than fiction, and more contemporary than not—I thought, Oh!
Several pages later, running to get my pad and pen and my sticky notes, I thought—Oh!
With every passing word, chapter, the masterful scribbling no less, I kept thinking how perfect Orwell is, was? is!— How he just captures the intricate, expert manipulation of the mind and the Thought Police, so fitting, and with every other label he uses to describe “it” like Doublethink. How he exposes the timeless political nature of the beast and the consequent affixation of the individual mind.
Forgive me, reader, as I ramble and jump around a bit. For this blog entry I am fairly certain, that at best, I am just as stupid as poor Syme. Why, it’s always been about SPIN, hasn’t it? And SPIN has always tasted like SPIT to me, the vomit, the antithesis of truth, the mechanics of war and yes, politics. Yet, we must know ourselves in the face of the enemy in order to answer the question: How are we to fight the ongoing assault on our consciousness?
“One of these days, Winston thought with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day, he will disappear… There was something subtly wrong with Syme. There was something that he lacked: discretion, aloofness, a sort of saving stupidity. You could not say he was unorthodox. He believed in the principles of Ingsoc, he venerated Big Brother, he rejoiced over victories, he hated heretics, and not merely with sincerity but with a sort of restless zeal, an up-to-dateness of information, which the ordinary Party member did not approach. Yet a faint air of disreputability always clung to him. He said too many things that would have been better unsaid, he had read too many books… Zeal was not enough. Orthodoxy was unconsciousness.”
WAR IS PEACE.
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
What is Thought Police? How does society mold or “wire” our perceptions so that individuals operate within a rigid, predefined network of thought, expertly tapped with internal judgment— so that individuals themselves are their own ‘thought police?’
Here are just a few ways it happens, according to Orwell:
Indoctrinate Children & Make it Look Innocent— Like Play:
“A handsome, tough looking boy of nine had popped up from behind the table and was menacing him with a toy automatic pistol, while his small sister, about two years younger, made the same gesture with a fragment of wood. Winston raised his hands above his head, but with an uneasy feeling, so vicious was the boy’s demeanor, that it was not altogether a game.
“You’re a traitor!” yelled the boy. “You’re a thought criminal! You’re a Euroasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”
Suddenly they were both leaping around him, shouting “Traitor!” It was somehow slightly frightening, like the gamboling of tiger cubs which will soon grow up into man-eaters.
For some reason Winston suddenly found himself thinking of their mother [Mrs. Parsons] with her wispy hair and the dust in the creases of her face. Within two years those children would be denouncing her to the Thought Police and then she would be vaporized”
Limit & Control Language:
“Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year? Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten… Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality control. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
Demonize Individualism & Elevate Conformity:
“In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”
Now take a look at this clip about the recent James Holmes and the "Batman" massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado:
When I saw this snippet, I thought--how powerful is this! How we can create a "dominant narrative" by asking & framing questions that are ultimately leading children to think that certain acts are a result of deviant behavior linked to "loner" or "outcast" tendencies. And even though it was proven to be absolutely untrue (as journalists discovered), how it's nearly impossible to "un-tell" a story.
Reading 1984 in the present time can be a powerful tool to promote critical dialogue about the power of media, spin and the role youth have in perpetuating dominant narratives that are more "reality control" than truth.
Here are some questions to think about:
What is this "critical window of time" with regards to news, in which we are engaged in or vulnerable of doublethink, or SPIN?
What are the false assumptions embedded in dominant narratives that mislead us in our understanding of acts of criminality, violence & terrorism?
What role do our children play in perpetuating these dominant narratives and how can educators challenge the "damage?"
How do we use language (consider our use of framing and questioning) as a way to limit thinking?