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Newspeak: Orwell's most prophetic idea

By James Sloan Allen, Special to The Christian Science MonitorJames Sloan Allen is chairman of the academic department at the Manhattan School of Music. / June 8, 1984



The grim prophecies of George Orwell's novel ''1984'' are much in the air this year. We are hearing that our democratic institutions have heroically resisted succumbing to the political tyranny represented by Big Brother. And we are hearing that, in truth, we are slipping into bondage of a more insidious kind, one that Orwell feared above all and which another prophet, Alexis de Tocqueville, warned against more than a century earlier when he wrote: ''The species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world. . . . The old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new,'' for ''it degrades men without tormenting them'' and ''does not tyrannize but compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies.''

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Although we associate ''1984'' most readily with the overt totalitarian authority of Big Brother, it is this subtler bondage anticipated by de Tocqueville that is Orwell's true subject and that gives ''1984'' compelling relevance to today's America. For in Orwell's novel, the state dominates and dehumanizes its citizens not so much through overt physical controls as through psychological manipulations that strip them of their ability to judge ideas and experience objectively; people thus have no alternative but to accept as necessary, true, and good whatever the state declares to be so.

Orwell gave the state many devices for achieving this end, but none was more effective - or instructive today - than Newspeak. Not just the barbarian language of the totalitarian state, Newspeak is a language devised to limit the range of thought by collapsing distinctions, undermining logic, and confining the vocabulary to a few easily pronounced and emotionally charged terms. A mind so limited cannot truly think at all; it can only respond as programmed. It will accept black as white, war as peace, hate as love; it will allow two plus two to equal five; it will adopt as ''goodthink'' all ideas that support the state and dismiss all others as ''oldthink'' or ''crimethink''; and it will let ''doublethink'' mask all contradiction. Reality itself thus becomes whatever those in authority decree - and history can be rewritten regularly to fit that reality.

These manipulations of mind make Orwell's futuristic novel dramatically pertinent now in the United States, because this election year is one in which politicians and the public alike are trying to determine the best uses and the appropriate means of shaping the mind. The national anguish over education nowadays and the intensifying cries for educational reform betoken exactly that. And educational reformers would do well to heed Orwell's message.

Amid the swelling demand for longer school days and years, for more math and more science, more facts and skills to be mastered, we should remember Orwell's warning that an intellectually vigorous and free society requires not just a high quantity of learning but the discriminating qualities of mind. These are the qualities that make possible objective and critical thought. When these qualities are lacking or are inadequate, learning, in whatever quantity, can yield only dull vocationalism or technical specialization or, worse, the dangerous practice of making learning but a means to power and intellect, an instrument of ideology.

By power, I mean self-aggrandizement in its many forms, such as the dominion of authority or expertise, the prerogatives of wealth and status, the pride of self-serving beliefs. And by ideology, I mean ideas that serve self-aggrandizement. It is dangerous to make such power the end of learning, because to do so is to eviscerate intellect by negating its distinctive activities. Those activities are to judge ideas and experience objectively and critically and to seek - to use old-fashioned terms - the true and the good, or objective knowledge and the best ends and means for human beings as human beings.