For many, our introduction to Orwell was at a tender age. As a speccy fourteen year old, I read it at school, in English Lit. Many around the country will have similar memories of the dreary concrete dystopia; the socialist propaganda; “Big brother is watching you”; the deceit; the rats; the spirit- crushing ending. I had a slightly more colourful learning experience than most, given that I share a name with Winston’s love interest; picture a room of teenage girls, gleefully reading the awkward sex scene aloud.
1984 is widely read with good reason. It teaches us to think critically and question authority. It sheds light on many facets of pop culture. Sure, it was responsible for Jade Goody, but 2+2=5 and Karma Police are cracking Radiohead tunes, and V for Vendetta was a pretty entertaining movie, if a little sullied by the braying 4chan anonymob. On top of that, it’s a bloody good read.
The problem is, a lot of us who read 1984 for GCSE English went on to spend a lot of time in online forums. And there, Orwell quotes are used in gay abandon to support whatever agenda the speaker happens to be pushing. SLAM. Orwell quote. I win.
It’s boring, insufferable, inaccurate and needs to stop. I’m laying down the rules.
1) You are not committing a thoughtcrime when you say something a bit controversial. You are not being edgy; you are probably just being a douche. You’re perfectly allowed to think bigoted thoughts. You can say bigoted words out loud too (up to a point). Neither the state, nor an an army of social justice warriors, are about to beat down you door and arrest you for thinking things. But we can tell you you’re wrong.
2) When a group of people agree on something, this is not groupthink. You are witnessing this phenomenon because either a) people with like-minded views tend to congregate or b) the view is widely held as being decent and right. Take the recent equal marriage debate in Ireland. Yes, most people were all for it. This wasn’t because of some great liberal conspiracy, but because not all sides of every argument are equal and most people, in the 21st Century, believe you should marry the person you love.
(NB. groupthink wasn’t used by Orwell, but is constantly attributed to him regardless. You could equally use “Orwellian”.)
3) Words like “cisgender” are not newspeak. They were not invented to limit nor police your thoughts; they were invented to make a group of people feel less marginalized. And yes, they were invented. Where do you think words come from?
At times, it is perfectly apt to use an Orwellian (there I go) dystopia as a point of comparison. In 2011, the US government argued for the GPS tracking of individuals without a warrant before the Supreme Court. Justice Breyer responded, “If you win this case, then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen…. You suddenly produce what sounds like 1984.” Correct, that sounds exactly like 1984. The NSA’s activities? Also quite like 1984. State surveillance of the internet? That too. People asking you not to say “tranny”? Not so much.
Holding a book up as an unimpeachable, quasi-sacral piece of guidance is never a good idea (look at what happened with the bible.) Far better to view everything as open to interpretation, and to accept nothing at face value. 1984 was published 66 years ago. Communism and Fascism are no longer the only big baddies on the block; the world has grown more complex. 1984 was written only two years after the decolonization of British India and a month after the declaration of Israel. That’s long before the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and many other massive 20th Century events that forever altered the geopolitical landscape. We cannot be so heavy- handed as to apply the book’s simplistic outlook (after all, it is political satire) to a complex post-globalised world.
And finally, this: meaningless soundbite repetition reduces a national literary treasure to an anti-fascist caricature. It eclipses his other, brilliant and more journalistic works - as well as his other talents - such as his fantastic skill for characterization. As happens with too many great writers (Fitzgerald and Gatsby; Nakobov and Lolita), we cannot let Orwell become shorthand for 1984.
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a keyboard warrior, stamping over Orwell’s legacy - forever.