If you've watched the news or followed politics chances are you've heard the term Orwellian thrown around in one context or another. But have you ever stopped to think about what it really means, or why it's used so often?
The term was named after British author Eric Blair known by his pen name George Orwell. Because his most famous work, the novel "1984," depicts an oppressive society under a totalitarian government, "Orwellian" is often used simply to mean authoritarian. But using the term in this way not only fails to fully convey Orwell's message, it actually risks doing precisely what he tried to warn against.
Orwell was indeed opposed to all forms of tyranny, spending much of his life fighting against anti-democratic forces of both the left-wing and the right. But he was also deeply concerned with how such ideologies proliferate. And one of his most profound insights was the importance that language plays in shaping our thoughts and opinions.
The government of "1984"'s Oceania controls its people's actions and speech in some ways that are obvious. Their every move and word is watched and heard, and the threat of what happens to those who step out of line is always looming overhead.
Other forms of control are not so obvious. The population is inundated with a constant barrage of propaganda made up of historical facts and statistics manufactured in the Ministry of Truth. The Ministry of Peace is the military. Labor camps are called "Joycamps." Political prisoners are detained and tortured in the Ministry of Love. This deliberate irony is an example of doublespeak, when words are used not to convey meaning but to undermine it, corrupting the very ideas they refer to.
The regime's control of language goes even further, eliminating words from the English language to create the official dialect of Newspeak, a crudely limited collection of acronyms and simple concrete nouns lacking any words complex enough to encourage nuanced or critical thought.
This has an effect on the psyche Orwell calls, "Doublethink," a hypnotic state of cognitive dissonance in which one is compelled to disregard their own perception in place of the officially dictated version of events, leaving the individual completely dependent on the State's definition of reality itself. The result is a world in which even the privacy of one's own thought process is violated, where one may be found guilty of thoughtcrime by talking in their sleep, and keeping a diary or having a love affair equals a subversive act of rebellion.
This might sound like something that can only happen in totalitarian regimes, but Orwell was warning us about the potential for this occurring even in democratic societies. And this is why "authoritarian" alone does not "Orwellian" make.
In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," he described techniques like using pretentious words to project authority, or making atrocities sound acceptable by burying them in euphemisms and convoluted sentence structures. But even more mundane abuses of language can affect the way we think about things. The words you see and hear in everyday advertising have been crafted to appeal to you and affect your behavior, as have the soundbites and talking points of political campaigns which rarely present the most nuanced perspective on the issues. And the way that we use ready-made phrases and responses gleaned from media reports or copied from the Internet makes it easy to get away with not thinking too deeply or questioning your assumptions.
So the next time you hear someone use the word Orwellian, pay close attention. If they're talking about the deceptive and manipulative use of language, they're on the right track. If they're talking about mass surveillance and intrusive government, they're describing something authoritarian but not necessarily Orwellian. And if they use it as an all-purpose word for any ideas they dislike, it's possible their statements are more Orwellian than whatever it is they're criticizing.
Words have the power to shape thought. Language is the currency of politics, forming the basis of society from the most common, everyday interactions to the highest ideals. Orwell urged us to protect our language because ultimately our ability to think and communicate clearly is what stands between us and a world where war is peace and freedom is slavery.