What is Newspeak and why does it matter now?
When Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Meet the Press” and declared press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to be “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 exploded. A longtime staple on high school reading lists, 1984 has been celebrated as an enlightening but haunting story about how an authoritarian government can build up an entire alternate reality for its people.
How does it do that?
In 1984, the new country of Oceania’s official language is Newspeak – a language that uses English words and mixes them together to produce an entirely new vocabulary to obscure the truth, deflect scrutiny, and promote pro-government propaganda. In light of Conway’s questionable vocabulary, many have begun to wonder if Newspeak is now a reality in world politics and everyday life. But what is Newspeak?
Newspeak makes bad things sound doubleplusgood.
1984‘s protagonist is Winston Smith, a member of the upper-middle echelon of Oceania’s society who works for the Ministry of Truth as an editor. His job is to comb through old newspaper articles, photographs, and records and rewrite them so that they support the government’s (embodied in the never-seen but always heard Big Brother) narrative of how things happened and how things should be. People in Oceania speak Newspeak, a constructed language specifically structured to prevent freedom of thought. In Newspeak, words with a negative association or connotation are replaced by their positive counterpart with an “un” tacked on at the beginning. For example, “bad” becomes “ungood.” Adjectives describing nuanced thoughts or feelings are eliminated entirely. Something incredible or extremely good is known as “doubleplusgood.” Many words with extremely negative connotations have been replaced with terms that are laughably ironic, like calling the prison camp “joycamp” or saying that someone has been “vaporized” when in reality they have been killed by the government for speaking against the regime. All of this is done to promote a singular orthodoxy of thought and to obscure the truth about the oppressive nature of Big Brother’s government.
Does language and propaganda affect the way we think and speak?
Calling bad things “ungood” and referring to execution as “being vaporized” certainly obscures the truth of the government’s actions in 1984, but does changing the words we use actually affect the way we think? Philosophers have long suggested that word choice affects the way we view the world. Roger Bacon went so far as to say that words obscure the nature of eternal truths. Around the nineteenth century, scientists and linguists have begun questioning the connection between language and the brain, and whether the structure of our language affects the way we view our world. After studying a number of Native American languages, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that language influences and restrains our categorization of things and affects our cognitive processes. This idea is called linguistic relativism. Since the early 1900s, linguists have argued about the extent to which language affects cognition- a debate that rages on today.
Famous linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky does extensive research on the nature of language in propaganda, the acceptance of propaganda in society, and self-censorship. Chomsky, heavily influenced at a young age by Orwell’s vision of a propaganda-driven dystopia, is famous for his book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Published in 1988 and written in the thick of the Cold War, Chomsky argues that mass media institutions, such as newspapers and TV channels, in the US are”
effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.
In other words Chomsky sees our present looking somewhat different from the one shown in 1984, where the censorship is overt and language has been consciously changed in order to control the population. Rather, he argues that a number of different market-driven forces subtly affect the way that news is written and that these forces they determine which news goes unreported. None of us like to think that we are consistently reading or writing propaganda, but Chomsky’s scholarship reminds us to constantly question and criticize the motives of major news outlets in what they report and how they report it. It also reminds us to look inward and think about the different forces and pressures we feel when it comes to expressing and censoring ourselves.
A history of propaganda
The idea of a large institution or government consciously distorting the truth to secure power is nothing new. The word propaganda comes from the name of an administrative body of the Catholic Church that was established in 1622 and put in charge of winning converts in non-Catholic areas. The Italian name of the group was Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or known simply as propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view,” and historians have found evidence of propaganda going back as far as the earliest discovered written sources. Propaganda can be written, but artwork has also been a very popular medium for propaganda throughout history. It can either distort the truth by cherry-picking certain facts and disregarding others, or it can promote outright promote lies.
In the last few centuries, propaganda has been used to mobilize populations in service of a certain institution or to discredit another individual or group. While many of the half-truths and lies of past propaganda have been disproved by modern historical research, many old propaganda-based assumptions and stories have embedded themselves into culture so deeply that they persist even today. The British government and ruling classes were particularly notorious for producing propaganda in order to justify further subjugation and conquest of overseas territories throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the early 1800s, the British media repeatedly printed stories and gory illustrations showing the exploits of a criminal group they called the “thugs” or “thugee” cult in India. Journalists and travelers told stories about a murderous cult of highwaymen that were driven to kill and plunder in service of their bloodthirsty goddess Kali. As a result of these stories, the East India Company (who controlled large swathes of India at this point) and British government enacted multiple laws over the decades that criminalized the mere existence of certain groups. Postcolonial scholars have revisited those articles and illustrations, and noticed that the groups that were charged with being sacrificial, criminal cults were also groups blamed for partaking in and instigating the violent Indian Uprising in 1857- an uprising that threatened the very existence of the British Empire in India. There are no credible sources that indicate that these groups’ motives were religious in nature, nor do the sources indicate that they were as deadly as commonly portrayed. Painting these groups as bloodthirsty, sacrificial cults and outlawing their existence was an easy way for imperial administrators to invalidate the negative consequences of imperial rule and subjugation that lead to the uprising. As a result of the prolific propaganda about thugees, the word “thug” became common English slang for a violent criminal. This was also the basis for the cringe-worthy plot of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Propaganda can affect the way we speak and view the world even centuries later.
Can information be tightly restricted when the internet exists?
Orwell wrote 1984 during World War II, and his outlook is clearly influenced by the things he saw occurring during WWII and in his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell reportedly saw mainstream newspapers talk about battles that had never been fought, and declare men cowards who had actually fought bravely. Both Orwell and Chomsky’s warnings about the nature of misinformation and propaganda seem exaggerated when we live in an era where there is arguably too much information shared out there. The internet allows us to share everything from pictures of our midday snack to live video from a war zone. You’d think it be easy to disprove any egregious lies, right?
Well, experts on communication and the internet warn us that the information highway can be stopped or regulated at any time. The policy of free, open internet (or “net neutrality” as it is often called) is constantly under threat by the governments of countries around the world. Donald Trump recently appointed Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission- a man that has been criticized for his opposition to net neutrality. No one knows exactly what this means for the future of net neutrality in the US, but it does mean that the possibility of pay-for-play internet (wherein certain websites are given access to a “fast lane” while others are slowed down or blocked entirely) is on the horizon. This means that Americans’ ability to access information could be even more restricted in the future, and our ability to refute any Newspeak-sque falsehoods could be significantly hindered.
Today, many of us laugh at Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts” because it is such a flagrant diversion from the truth. George Orwell’s picture of a dystopian, authoritarian future in 1984 is vastly different than our present situation, but the use of Newspeak-like phrases by those in the government and media is an unfortunate similarity between that fictional world and our current reality. As of today, 1984 sits atop Amazon’s list of best-selling books. Not far behind are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Despite the propaganda machine chugging along, it still seems like many are ready to rage against it.