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Essay: Orwell’s 1984 – warning against propaganda designed for conformity

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All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.

Society loves conformity. To conform is to succeed, and those who do not are made an example of; an unpleasant reminder of what failure to conform looks like. The acid-dropping hippie, the Feminist, the LGBTQ member or the tattooed “freak”. Time after time we are told not to become them, but why? Would it cause the well-oiled machine to fail, the wall we have been set in place to crumble? The novel Nineteen
Eighty-four by George Orwell explores what would happen if individuals were to break the mold of conformity, and would it make a difference?

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949 and was issued as a powerful warning against the danger of a totalitarian society. Orwell lived through a time of war, revolution, and propaganda. Once a supporter of the Russian Revolution, Orwell later changed his opinion upon realizing that behind the veneer of greatness lay famines, forced labor, and political repression. He detested Soviet-style communism and strongly favored democratic socialism. Orwell later went on to fight fascism in the Spanish civil war. He joined a fraternal Spanish party (POUM) which was a small Marxist, anarchist, and socialist group with strong utopian Socialist ideals. Orwell’s time fighting the Stalin backed communist party in Spain solidified his distaste with Stalin and the Communist party and strengthened his democratic socialist beliefs (Pettinger). Taking personal experience and distrust of totalitarian governments, Orwell used his novel Nineteen Eighty-four to educate the public of the dangers of a totalitarian state.

The novel Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in the year 1984 in Oceania, a totalitarian state that is constantly at war with Eurasia or Eastasia. Oceania is governed by the omnipotent Party, which brainwashes its citizens into blind obedience to its leader, Big Brother. The Party’s slogans are written in Newspeak, a self-created propagandistic language designed to limit free thought. This new language promotes contradictory ideas simultaneously, for example “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery”, and “Ignorance is strength.” Another way the Party controls free thought is through continual surveillance and Thought Police. One of the main characters, Winston Smith works for the Outer Party in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history so that it may align itself with the current political views of the Party. Winston’s job leads to his uncertainty of what is reality or fiction in society. His search for the verity guides him to the Brotherhood, a group of dissenters and Julia, a like-minded woman. Winston pursues a forbidden affair with Julia, attracted to her rebellious spirit and body. The couple falls in love, which the Party forbids. To fall in love is to put that person above the Party. Their romance attracts the attention of O’Brien, an official of the inner party who is posing as a member of the Brotherhood. Winston and Julia are caught and sent to the Ministry of Love for violent reeducation due to their insubordinate behavior. Their imprisonment is filled with torture and reeducation, designed to permanently suppress their anarchist urges. In Room 101, Winston is forced into submission by being exposed to his worst nightmare. A cage of rats is placed on Winston’s head, in a panic he yells out “Do it to Julia!”, stating he does not care what happens to her. Upon this betrayal, Winston is released back to his mundane life. The new love in Winston and Julia’s life is not each other, but rather Big Brother. They are Oceania’s newest conforming citizens (Lowne).

Much like Oceania, our modern society thrives on conformity. Conformity causes individuals to change their behaviors in order to “fit in” with the group. This phenomenon, when found in nature is known as herd mentality. Its instinctive purpose is to protect the individuals found within the herd. Those brave enough to be individualistic risk the possibility of dying from predators. This primal instinct is also present in humans and is known as mob mentality or Groupthink. Much like herd mentality, it is distinguished by a lack of individual decision-making, causing people to think and behave in similar manners to those around them (Chen). It can manifest in society in harmless ways, for example fashion trends. Or in more sinister ways, such as the Holocaust. What once was useful strategy in the wild, has now been manipulated in society to influence individuals to partake in out of character activities and behaviors. The term Group Think was first coined by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four and is prevalent throughout the entirety of the novel. Examples of this are Double Think, a newspeak word which refers to know and not know the truth. The ability to simultaneously know the truth and dismiss it for false information. Winston is expected to follow Double Think in his job in the records department at the Ministry of Truth. He is asked to falsify public records and then believe in them as the truth. While Winston knows these are not facts, he accepts them as the truth in order to fit in with the group. Another example of this is Hate Week, a week-long event designed to the hatred of the current enemy of Oceania. All members are expected to participate and show enthusiasm during the event. While not legally required, avoiding the event would raise the suspicion of the Thought Police, which could result in vaporization. While these ideas and events seem absurd, versions of them are prevalent in the United States government.

The United States government is not a stranger to the use of Double Think. For example, on September 11, 2001 following the catastrophic terrorist attacks the U.S. government launched the War on Terrorism in Iraq. In what became a war to retaliate the death of 3,000 American citizens in 2001, the War on Terrorism has become its own form of terrorism in the Middle East. Since 2001, 29,000 civilians in several countries located in the Middle East have perished in this war with the intentions of liberating them from terrorists. Frequent speeches from George W. Bush, the president of the United States at this time are full of Double Think. For example, his memorable quote, “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).
While the United States does not formally hold a designated hate week, there have been events in the past that parallel the event. For example, the Red Scare following World War II, popularly known as McCarthyism. Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin launched a public witch hunt for possible Communists in the State Department, White House, Treasury, US Army and public. Citizens were encouraged to report suspicious individuals that may be partaking in Communistic activities, thus creating a climate of fear and suspicion across the country. No one dared to speak out against this for fear of being labeled disloyal. Eventually this fear and repression linked to the Red Scare and communism faded and was replaced terrorists (History.com Editors). This cultural change can be noted by observing movie villains. Movies released during the Cold War era often feature a Russian character, often associated with Communism. For example, Alexi De Sadeski in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Movies released more recently feature Middle Eastern terrorists, such as Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty (Kern). These movies inspire hatred towards these “new” enemies, much like the atrocity pamphlet propaganda released by the Fiction Department.
As a society, we as individuals are bombarded with these various methods of propaganda, much like Winston and Julia. However, they dared to break the mold of conformity. They first began with small acts of defiance, such as journaling and dreaming of leaving the Party. Then moving on to reading forbidden books, discussing free thought and having sex for pleasure. Winston and Julia are eventually caught by the Thought Police and reeducated. Winston outwardly obeys the Party, but inwardly does not resign his rebellious spirit. He concludes that until the Proles (working class) gain conscious they will never rebel. Without the education of the working class, there is no chance of revolution. This is much like our modern society, we as individuals can rebel and refuse to conform much like Winston and Julia. But this act of defiance alone is not enough; it requires the dispersion of facts in order to succeed. As Bill Ayers once said, “Education is the motor-force of the revolution.” Brick by brick the wall of ignorance built and supported by the government can began to crumble.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is a political statement urging individuals to open their eyes to the world of propaganda designed for conformity, and to dare to break out of the mold. To be aware of personal freedoms and to defend the right to have original thoughts. Revolution is not possible only on an individual level, it also requires the education and utilization of the working class. Instead of fearing change in our society, we must embrace it. As individuals it should be our duty to question everything. Question our government, our religions, our corporations, even our education system. If we were to educate ourselves, we may find that those who have failed to conform may be the happiest of us all: The acid-dropping hippie, the Feminist, the LGBTQ member or the tattooed “freak”. They have heeded Orwell’s advice, to be wary of conformity and defend the rights of original thought. Society fears them, not because they are physically dangerous, but because they disrupt the system. They can no longer be controlled by the fantasy rules society has constructed to keep order. So, dare to be like them, cause a ruckus and stir change in those around you. All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall, but together we are so much more.

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