Newspeak: Orwell's most prophetic idea

By , James Sloan Allen is chairman of the academic department at the Manhattan School of Music.

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.''

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.

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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.

By subjecting learning to power or self-aggrandizement, we turn intellect from these activities and cause it to function merely ideologically, to embrace uncritically as true and good only those ideas or facts that serve our selfish political, economic, social, or psychological interests. An intellect functioning ideologically cannot truly think, because it has lost its most important attributes: integrity and freedom. Integrity enables intellect to judge experience (including our own thoughts, feelings, and actions) honestly. Freedom enables intellect to operate independent of external controls. We would be blind to this loss of integrity and freedom in ourselves, but its symptoms are not hard to see in society: amoral opportunism and proliferating crime, moral relativism and complacent subjectivity, the denial of all authority at one extreme and self-righteous authoritarianism at the other, to name only a few.

Orwell speaks directly to this condition of mind and culture, and to the current ''crisis'' in education, because he dramatized the consequences of subjecting learning to power and intellect to ideology, thus demonstrating that no added quantity of learning can of itself preserve a society's vitality and well-being; only the capacity for objective and critical thought can do that.

If you doubt the shortage of this kind of thought in America today, just try, for example, to get an undergraduate to make an objective and reasoned moral judgment instead of saying: ''I can only say what is right for me.'' Or notice how our political language serves power and ideology: what, for instance, does ''free world'' mean on the lips of politicians defending American foreign policy? Does it mean that part of the world where people freely choose their ways of life and governments and openly express their opinions, or that part friendly to America, including oppressive regimes like those in Haiti and Chile? Or consider how the verb ''to feel'' is rapidly supplanting the verb ''to think'' in American life. From politicians and intellectuals on down to students , we hear how one ''feels'' rather than ''thinks'' an action to be right, an opinion to be wrong, an alleged fact to be accurate (thus a headline in the New York Times: ''Missile Issue: Both Sides Feel the Other Has Advantage'').

High on the lists of reasons for this practice would be this: To think is to support one's ideas with objective fact and logical argument, and this involves both effort and risk; to feel is to experience a nonrational impulse that is at once free of effort and seemingly invincible to contrary fact or argument.

The advantages of supplanting thought by feeling are obvious. But when feeling takes the place of thought in this way, the ability to think objectively and critically soon dissolves into self-serving and self-deceiving ideology. Thus does the diplomacy of disarmament degenerate into a contest of feelings; and thus does the specter of Orwell's intellectually incapacitated, psychologically enslaved human being rise before us.

These few examples of ideological thought not only recall Orwell and betray patterns in our culture, they also provide a practical hint for the reform of our schools and colleges.

That hint is the need to defend intellect against the seductions of power and ideology by teaching students not only more facts and skills, but to scrutinize intellect itself; that is, to see how words both express and shape thought, character, and culture; what the cliches and catch phrases of the day actually mean and what advantages people gain from using them; how the words with which we think are related to power and ideology, objectivity and self-interest. The integrity and freedom of intellect grow from just such scrutiny.

Orwell was right, as was de Tocqueville before him:

Only those are free who can judge themselves and their world objectively; and those are most enslaved who cannot see their slavery. In 1984 we should read '' 1984,'' not just for its portrait of totalitarian politics but for its clues to education and culture.

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