George Orwell’s 1984, Part 2: Crash Course Literature #402


Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
literature, and today we’re going back to the future–that is now past–to George
Orwell’s 1984, which imagines a terrifying world in which every human activity is recorded
and monitored. How unpleasant would that be, he said staring
into a camera lens. So, as mentioned in our previous episode,
the Newspeak language created in the book was intended “to make speech […] as nearly
as possible independent of consciousness” (319). In an episode of Crash Course Psychology,
my brother, Hank, defined “consciousness” as “our awareness of ourselves and our environment.” I would add that consciousness also explains
our ability to experience life and to feel emotions. So can the structure of a language actually
be “independent of human consciousness.”? Well, today, we’ll explore whether language
is imposed on us from the outside or whether it’s an innate feature of humanity. I’m also gonna talk about how this novel
was perceived, when it was published, in the actual 1984, and how people think about it
today. And we’ll go ahead and make some connections
between Orwell’s novel and our current society’s really confusing relationship with truth and
surveillance. Yeah, we can still criticize surveillance
society. that’s not a thoughtcrime. Yet.. INTRO
In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Records Department of the Ministry
of Truth (in Newspeak, known as “Minitrue”). He adjusts financial and weather forecasts
so that “Big Brother’s” predictions are always retroactively correct. He also removes references to “unpersons,”
or “vaporised” political dissidents. And he rewrites history so that Oceania appears
always to have been at war with EastAsia. Or with Eurasia. It changes, depending on shifting allegiances. The “central tenet” of Ingsoc (the version
of English Socialism practiced in Oceania) is that the past is “mutable,” that it
has “no objective existence,” and it exists only in “written records and in human memories.” Orwell writes:
The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of
all records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that
the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it” (219). So, Winston mainly writes in Newspeak–a version
of English with grammar and vocabulary designed to “narrow the range of thought.” The idea is that, without the language to
express dissent, political crimes, in thought or deed, will become impossible. But quickly, before we get to the chicken
and egg problem of language and thought, though, I want to pause to ask you to think about
this novel’s relationship to memory. Now, we know from neuroscience that each time
a memory is accessed, you’re remembering it anew–there’s no, like, spot in your
brain containing a memory; it is formed each time you have it. And that means that your memories are shaped
by your now–and that at least to some extent, the Party is right when it says that telling
people what they remember does change their memories. So, the Party is manipulating a real, structural
feature of the human brain–as we learned in our discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s
One Hundred Years of Solitude, “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what
you remember and how you remember it.” OK, so with that noted, let’s turn to thought:
Many experts have explored to what extent our ability to think is dependent on language. In the late 1920s, the ethno-linguist Edward
Sapir began talking in academic circles about his theory that the structure of the language
a person uses determines how they perceive and categorize experience. When his student, Benjamin Whorf, published
his writings in the 1950s, this theory became known as “the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” Then, in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky questioned
the premise of this theory, arguing that humans are born with an innate knowledge of grammar
that forms the basis for language acquisition. And in 1994, Steven Pinker argued that language
is a basic instinct, and that the ability to understand, manipulate, and add to it based
on one’s own experiences is an expression of one’s humanity. In fact, he wrote a book called The Language
Instinct. But before any of these theories were published,
Orwell was also thinking about the relationship between instinct and language. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. The word “instinct” appears 31 times in
1984. Winston is a creature of instinct, and his
strongest instinct is to survive: “To hang on from day to day and from week to week,
spinning out a present that had no future, seemed an unconquerable instinct, just as
one’s lungs will always draw the next breath so long as there is air available” (emphasis
added, 155). Winston understands that his society is inhumane:
“It MIGHT be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been
before the Revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the
mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were
intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different” (emphasis added,
76). So to Orwell there are human instincts toward
generosity and survival and liberty, but Orwell is also aware how dangerous human instincts
can be, particularly when manipulated by a totalitarian state. For example, the Party transforms an innate
fear of death into mob violence: “For how could the fear, the hatred, and
the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch,
except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?” (emphasis added, 136). It also transforms the survival instinct into
a form of self-repression: “Crimestop” is the ability to cut off one’s ideas, “…as
though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought” (217). Thanks, Thought Bubble. But of course, those thoughts are only dangerous
because the government might kill you for having them. But — and I think this is critical — writing
in Newspeak and participating in Party rallies alone does not alter Winston’s consciousness,
and it doesn’t seem to change his instincts — he’s still able to love Julia, and in
little ways to live his “ownlife” life. But then, eventually, Winston does betray
his girlfriend, Julia, and he comes to believe that he “should” repress his thoughts. So ultimately, he loses his sense of self. But not, I would argue, entirely because of
Newspeak. Mostly because of torture. In the end his consciousness can’t survive
being threatened with having his head put in a cage with hungry rats. It is then that Winston breaks down and wishes
that Julia receive this punishment in his place. And by betraying Julia, he loses his ability
to love. He loses faith in his own humanity. And after Winston is psychologically broken,
he starts to think in Newspeak. Consider his stream of (non-) conscious narrative:
“The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. CRIMESTOP, they called it in Newspeak” (emphasis
added, 288). So initial use of Newspeak might be part of
Winston’s journey toward the lack of consciousness, but it’s the physical and psychological
torture that really take him there. And with that in mind, we can turn to the
question of whether words actually matter. I mean, can ‘good’ language or ‘good’
books enhance the human experience? I believe so. And I think Orwell must have believed so,
too, or else he wouldn’t have written 1984. And as we talked about in the last video,
we know that free expression survives within the logic of the novel, because the appendix
is written in Standard English It also refers to the totalitarian government
in the past tense. So we know that humanity eventually triumphs
over oppression and oppressive language! Free thought and free speech endure! Great, but Orwell doesn’t tell us how those
victories were won. One minute, Winston is in love with Big Brother,
the next minute, Appendix in Standard English. But that hasn’t stopped readers from trying
to use 1984 to diagnose (and solve) problems unique to their times. Like, when 1984 was first published, Time
Magazine claimed that “any reader in 1949 can uneasily see his own shattered features
in Winston Smith, can scent in the world of 1984 a stench that is already familiar.” Other early reviewers at the time read 1984
as an attack on British Socialism. In a letter to a friend, Orwell explained
that the novel: “…is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism
or on the British Labor Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions
to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in
Communism and Fascism.” In the years after the book was published,
readers began associating Orwell’s name with the forms of oppression that he critiqued. Surveillance? “Quite Orwellian!” Propaganda? “Also Orwellian.” But actually anti-Orwellian! In 1983, a Time Magazine journalist tried
to reappropriate the term “Orwellian” to make it signify, “the spirit that fights
the worst tendencies in politics and society by using a fundamental sense of decency.” Of course, that was a failure. If you Google “Orwellian,” you’ll find
a long list of ways it has been applied to various misuses of government power. Poor Orwell. Not since Dr. Frankenstein has someone so
often been inappropriately alluded to. And then of course there is the question of
our today, and whether it resembles the Oceania of 1984. In terms of politics, neither the U.S. nor
the U.K. look much like Oceania. Whatever you think of our elected officials,
they are just that. Elected. In fact, a higher percentage of people on
Earth today live in democracies than did in 1949, or for that matter 1984. So it’s actually been a pretty good seven
decades for democracy, but, there are some similarities between contemporary life and
the future that Orwell imagined: For instance our time has some serious issues
with the dissemination of objective fact. There’s a good reason that Stephen Colbert’s
word “truthiness,” meaning “a truth that wouldn’t stand to be held back by fact”
was chosen by the American Dialect Society as the word of the year in 2005. Propaganda, both subtle and overt, continue
to distort social and political discourse around the world. And then there’s the issue of surveillance…
in Oceania, the government places microphones and telescreens in public spaces and private
homes. And the telescreen is an addictive content
provider–broadcasting news, weather reports, and interactive exercise videos. It detects sounds above a whisper and movement
within its field of vision. In Winston’s apartment, it can be dimmed,
but not turned off completely. Creepier still: there was, “…no way of
knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment” (3). Today, we, too, have audio and video surveillance
in shops, and airports, and public parts of big cities, and also in our homes–alexa,
can you make sure not to spy on me? {[[Alexa, off-screen]] I’m sorry, John. I’m afraid I can’t do that.} I have to say, I don’t find that answer
terribly comforting. And this loss of privacy is the trade-off
that we make for increased security and convenience. But also, think about how much of your ownlife
and consciousness also exists out there in the personal information you willingly post
online. We have Snapchat, and Instagram, and Twitter,
and Pinterest, and Tumblr, and WhatsApp, and LinkedIn, and YouTube, and I think we still
have Google Plus. And if you’re waiting for me to denounce
social media, I’m not gonna. These are amazing ways to broadcast pictures
of yourself being cool and to publish your thoughts from the sublime to the ridiculous. We indicate our preferences by liking, swiping,
reposting, and commenting. We tag all the wonderful places that we visit
and show everyone what we ate while we were there. Social media is fun! It’s awesome! I’m in favor of it. But have you read the privacy policy of each
service you use? There’s no question that something is lost
when you choose to make any part of your ownlife public. Winston can’t turn off his telescreen. Many of us choose not to turn ours off , exposing
a lot of our ownlives to surveillance, and I believe that does ultimately shape our lives. It’s certainly not a 1984-level control
of the private self–but it is worth considering. In our era, for those of us lucky enough to
live in democracies, Big Brother is not a totalitarian government, able to alter the
consciousness of its citizens through various forms of torture. Instead, Big Brother is each of us. We are watching each other–in the best ways,
and the worst ways. Does this distract us from our physical bodies,
our animal desires, our bonds with real life family and friends, our impulses to help others
(you know… that business of being conscious and human)? Or does it ultimately enhance our humanity? I don’t know. But I don’t think time spent considering
those questions is wasted. And that’s Orwell’s true genius: The questions
that he asked in 1949 about a hypothetical 1984: they’re timeless. What is the nature of humanity? Which social orders best allow humanity to
flourish? Which oppress it nearly beyond recognition? And what is the role of language and literature
in liberating the oppressed? Keep asking those important questions and
you will be “Orwellian” in the most heroic sense of the word. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.

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