Language as an Instrument of Totalitarianism

As an author, George Orwell is concerned with the modern use and misuse of the English language. He notes the recognized ability of language to distort truth and deceive masses in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, and attempts to alert the public of this power in his novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four . Depicting dystopia of a totalitarian system at a complete extreme, Orwelll’s novel is essentially about psychological control of the public. In the creation of “Newspeak”, Orwell portrays the effects of recurring abuse of language by government, and demonstrates how language can be used politically to manipulate minds on a monumental scale, eventually birthing a society in which people obey the government unquestionably. As argued in his essay and actualized in the novel, language acts as an instrument of mind-control, with the goal of perpetual elimination of individual consciousness and maintenance of a totalitarian regime.

Orwell’s essay begins with the understanding that “…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. In evaluating trends in current language, such as the use of pretentious diction and meaningless words, he argues that an individual morphs into a type of human machine , simply regurgitating information without involving any of his or her own thoughts. As Orwell says in the essay, “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” . In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, this phenomenon is depicted in the development of Newspeak. Developed chiefly to restrict the range of one’s thought and shorten memory, Newspeak is an ideal language for a totalitarian system such as the Inner Party, in which government relies heavily on the passivity of a public lacking free thought. As Orwell expects, “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration” ; thus the Party limits such public thought, eliminating the threat of a society that can denounce government and defend itself from wrong.

In order to maintain its power, Orwell claims that a political regime uses language to produce a reduced state of individual consciousness in its residents. As it structures and places limits on ideas that an individual is capable of forming, language is established as a type of mind-control for the masses. The primary purpose of political language, to Orwell, is to eliminate individual thought and expression. In using euphemisms and metaphors, for example, which one does not create by him or herself, an individual neither creates his/her thoughts nor chooses his/her words; thus the process of thinking is completely eliminated. This idea is developed more radically in his novel in the use of Newspeak, as the Party has completely erased any forum for personal thought or expression. As one member of the party describes, “‘In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it’.”

The concept of thought control is evident throughout the novel, but is also present in Orwell’s earlier ideas about the politics of language as described in his article. He identifies that political language largely serves to “make lies sound truthful” , and draws the conclusion that political orthodoxy is preserved by the use of vagueness and insincerity in language . Orwell gives examples of how politicians can twist words to deceive people in his essay: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside . . . this is called pacification… People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the next or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements” . Thus the use of Newspeak in Oceania similarly serves to uphold political obedience. As the Inner Party has the ability to alter the structure of language in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, it makes the conception of nonconformist and rebellious thought impossible, thus eliminating any questioning of the Party’s absolute power.

Both Orwell’s novel and essay carry a grave warning about the political powers of language. He uses his media to demonstrate not only how language can cloak truth, but also how language can be used as an ultimate tool for maintenance of totalitarian regimes. While language is usually thought to extend cultural considerations and improve one’s understanding of the world, Orwell’s works illustrate how it can, when used in a vicious political way, become an instrument against human consciousness.

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