George Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian novel that follows Winston Smith, a normal employee in the Ministry of Truth. Life in 1984 is bleak, non-whimsical and ensued in war. With the depletion of self-identity under the tyrannical guise of “Big Brother”, 1984 serves as a commentary on politics and power. With the abuse of power comes the depletion of self-identity and free will. This essay will discuss how Orwell’s novel depicts this exploitation and how it can be practiced on a macro and micro scale in modern times.
Set in the year of its namesake, Orwell’s story however was written decades before. In the mid-to-late 40s when this book was written, the threat of totalitarian regimes was real and relevant. Devised by Benito Mussolini to identify his government, totalitarianism in his words is: “Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
In the world of 1984, Mussolini’s totalitarianism is presented and recreated flawlessly. Throughout his novel, Orwell portrays a system where the people in power control and manipulate their subjects as a common theme. The three main elements of totalitarianism in the novel are: Big Brother, the thought police, and telescreens. For Winston Smith, these are the biggest obstacles that keep him from being able to live freely and without constant fear. The constant view of the “no color in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere… [that read] BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (Orwell 4) reminds Winston where the power in society lies. Along with the constant reminders, the telescreens implanted into the walls of his apartment also send across the same controlling message. So, “Winston [keeps] his back turned to the telescreen. [Its] safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing.” (6) The telescreens, aside from being another tool for Big Brother to spy on its citizens, is also a tool for propaganda. If you’re deemed capable of “real thought” then the government requires that you keep the telescreen on at all times. That way, you’re being watched by the government, fed relentless propaganda and it can be made sure that you are staying loyal to Big Brother.
In North Korea today, freedom of speech and thought is still only a pipe dream. Under its “Great Successor” Kim Jong Un, the borders of North Korea have been sealed even tighter than before. Many of those who’ve escaped North Korea say they’re leaving because they believe they’ve been let down by their government through false hope and propaganda. Much of the desire to leave the state comes from the desire for more information and freedom to express it. As of 2011, many North Koreans are receiving ‘black market’ hard drives containing soap operas, music and mostly anything relevant to global pop culture.
This desire to flee routes from the mass media censorship by the country’s current and previous regimes. In the start of Kim Jong Un’s regime, the government released a song dedicated to him called “Foot Steps”. These kinds of propaganda songs dedicated to North
Korean leaders are very common and are constantly broadcasted throughout the duration of their reign.
A man from Hyesan, who escaped back in 2015 accounts that “[They] heard the song ‘Footsteps’ and were told to memorize it so [they] knew that he was going to be the leader… We were told how great he was … but if you laughed or said anything, you’d be killed.”
This extreme media censorship and the harsh consequences parallel 1984’s political climate almost perfectly. The mass propaganda and conditioning of the citizens to fall under the rule of these regimes blindly admit to being models of a totalitarian state.
Often times, propaganda is used to take away an individual’s identity and free thought to make a collective conscious. This cultivation of a collective identity brainwashes citizens and becomes very dangerous. Once one strays from the social norms and standards set by the collective, the consequences may be extreme.
Throughout the novel, Winston is seen attempting to express his individuality. He does this through keeping a personal diary, creating his own personal truth, and partaking in an illegal sexual relationship. He finds comfort in his ‘own life’ and doesn’t participate in the activities/sessions planned by the Party. After entrusting O’Brian and joining the Brotherhood (a group whose prerogative is to bring down the Party) Winston is compromised and jailed within the Ministry of Love. He sits here until O’Brian, his supposed ally, arrives to torture him. Then, after many failed attempts to end Winston’s tirade of “doublethink”, he is then moved to Room 101. Here Winston reaches his breaking point and succumbs to the Party lines.
In Afghanistan during the 1990’s under the Islamic rule of the Taliban, we can see how individuality serves as a big threat to the state. Within this decade the Taliban’s main goal was to see “a pure Islamic society” , based off the teachings of the Quran.
In their blueprint for this perfect Islamic society, Women were subjected to a life behind bars, in their own homes. Additionally, men “were required to grow bushy beards” among not being able to “[play] cards, [listen] to music, [keep] pigeons and [fly] kites” . While it may seem that these guidelines were petty compared to those of other regimes, the consequences make up for the lack of terror.
For example, Hadi Sultani, an Afghan man who at the time was in his mid-20s was subject to the harsh reality and consequences of the Taliban rule. He was subjected to “several, unending months” in jail for not having a beard and playing music. As a self-identified Atheist, he didn’t understand or believe that he needed to have a full-grown beard, in his own words he says “it just wasn’t [his] style” . He also has a passion for poetry and art, so naturally he would want to express that and do so through his music. On one unfortunate afternoon, the armed Taliban enforcers were doing inspections through his village and stumbled upon him playing traditional Hazaragi music in his home, without a beard. He was then immediately arrested and spent months in jail. Upon his release, unlike Winston Smith, his prerogatives were not beaten out of him, but he did comply. This was because his family and friends refused to let him be selfish and ruin their lives for the sake of his personal identity.
The forced creation of a collective identity takes away the individual’s ability to act and think on their own accord. Constantly having to think about the consequences of actions on one’s self and others makes it harder to justify individuality. This tactic is used in 1984 and modern societies to control and maintain order amongst citizens, and to ensure undying loyalty.
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