Before I get into that, a bit of personal housekeeping. The poetry I posted earlier today was written in response to some emotional turmoil I went through this past year. Longtime readers may recall mention of someone only ever referred to as the Man. We had a very brief relationship that ended a few days before my birthday last September. There were no plans to keep in contact with him after that, but things kept reminding me of him and in the (many) weak moments, there’d be an urge to get ahold of his phone number so I could at least hear his voice again and find out how he was doing. One such urge hit in July of this year but when I requested his number from a mutual acquaintance I wound up getting an email from him instead. I’ve since deleted that, and my long response to it, but the bulk of the exchange cleared up many of the communication glitches that had impeded our progress as a couple at the time. That in itself was something of a relief. I finally had a better understanding of why things fell apart and got the chance to get a few things off my chest, too. And then I thought little more about it. Life must go on, right?
As it turned out, he thought a little more about it and, almost a year to the day we broke up, he called me up and asked me out for coffee. I was nervous as hell about seeing him again but the awkwardness only lasted a moment and then we were our chatty, comfortable selves again, as if no time at all had passed between us. Talk about awesome. As to knowing where we’re at now, you can just keep on squirming in your seat. The lurid details will not be forthcoming.
For years I’ve insisted that communication is key. It really is. I think the strength of any relationship, be it romantic or parental, can be measured by how well the people involved deal with each other and it’s always going to be the best way to build trust. And let’s not even limit this to personal relationships. Let’s talk public relationships. Corporations and politicians want consumers and voters to trust them, too. When communication breaks down, or is allowed to break down, that’s where the trouble starts. People insist on transparency for a reason. People demand less secrecy and fewer obvious lies. People have a right to demand that. Communication and trust go hand in hand.
Which brings me, finally, to 1984 by George Orwell.
We had a really interesting discussion about this book last night. I doubt I can remember every fine point that came up, but here goes.
The premise, for those who need it: Winston Smith lives in a politically polarized society where every moment of his life is monitored by “Big Brother” and the art of communication is getting more and more restrictive every day. Committees are hard at work stripping the English language of anything too nuanced or descriptive, hoping to make Ingsoc the official language for everyone because it’s “doubleplusgood” yet essentially useless for communicating any worthwhile or challenging ideas. Winston has a different job, but it’s focused on language, too, particularly language used to express moments in history. He’s responsible for editing print material from the past when the contents conflict with present-day political thought and current events.
For example, there’s a long-term war on, but ally and enemy switch places every once in a while, which means references to Oceania at war with Eurasia need to be switched to war with Eastasia, and switched back again mere months later. Crazy business. It came up a few times in conversation last night – what the hell do they do this for when the bulk of that society is comprised of illiterate “proles” too busy drinking beer and having sex and who would never try to hunt down a news article from five months ago to check for inconsistencies anyway? The whole point of “doublethink” is to believe what you’re told, no matter how contradictory it is compared with what you were told before. War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!
The freedom to think for one’s self is severely curtailed and limited in this world. The proles are completely ignorant of just how limited they really are. They live their lives completely oblivious to the things that people like Winston and other Outer Party people fear. They have to fear the Thought Police. They’re all worried and fearful of being caught behaving or thinking in any way that might lead their own children to believe they’re thought criminals and turn them in. Winston has a rebellious streak and knows death could be around the corner anytime but he still writes in his secret journal and starts up a sexual relationship with a fellow Party member and rebel named Julia, a practice banned by the Party at large. When the pair finds out there’s a grassroots resistance movement called the Brotherhood, they’re eager to join it. Unfortunately, it turns out the Party has been onto them the whole damn time and people they were foolish to trust in the first place are quick to betray them, and they are doomed to betray each other. The remainder of the book is spent with Winston in his Party prison being tortured and broken down and eventually built up again through hard-core conditioning to be Party supporter.
We talked a bit about how Orwell published this in 1947 so he was certainly familiar with the Hitler Youth movement and propaganda tactics being used by all sides to sell the favoured ideologies of the time, but most of our discussion had to do with the language issue and whether or not the society Orwell built here would function at all. Some made the argument that you can take away the word but you can’t take away the feeling. Kill the word “freedom” and never teach people what it means, but there will still be that urge to be free, even if they can’t express the feeling with a specific word anymore. We’ll still need food even if we have no word for “hunger.” We’ll still ache for love even if the verbal or written language used to express it is eradicated, as was happening in Winston’s society. Our humanity cannot be denied for long.
So, bringing this back to the idea of communication and trust. The Party manipulates all facets of communication, making sure nobody has a truth they can rely on as a definite “This is how it really is” sense of their world. Winston thinks he’s found it in a history book published by the Brotherhood but even this turns out to be dubious information once he’s told the tome was manufactured by Party insiders, likely for the whole purpose of drawing out anyone who showed obvious signs of resistance. But rather than make him a martyr to that cause by publicly executing him, they merely kill his spirit instead, and fill the void with their own party mantras. 2 + 2 really can equal 5.
Geeky side note: Star Trek is totally awesome. Picard hollering, “There are four lights!” at his Cardassian captors is the heroic homage to Winston’s inability to maintain a truth he could see plainly: four fingers visible on O’Brien’s hand, versus O’Brien stating he was showing five. Recalling the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” led us down another path exploring how meaning is transferred through language and why conversation built around metaphor might be an impossible way to get any sense of anything across to one’s own offspring let alone a stranger. And I got to compare Winston’s ultimate no-win situation to the Kobayashi Maru.
All in all, we came out of the meet in agreement about this book being a valuable piece of literary history that ought to be read by everyone. The ideas expressed within it will always be vital talking points and important issues for every aspect of society. This shit matters and will always matter so long as there are governments looking to control information. It will always matter so long as there are people looking for guidance, loyalty, trust, respect, and love. If you haven’t read it yet, at least put it on your list of things to do, okay? And then come back here and comment on it.