Orwell’s ‘1984’ and the alternative truth

One of the ways that George Orwell exposed the reality of authoritarian dictatorship in his novel 1984 was through the way his Big Brother authorities twisted the truth.

This is orange juice.

They didn’t just lie in blatantly transparent ways – they demanded that their ‘alternative facts’ be taken as gospel, irrespective of any evidence to the contrary. If a goon held up four fingers and insisted there were five – well, there were five, and woe betide anybody who dared suggest otherwise.

The way they did it was via brutal applications of power (sometimes literally, as in high voltage torture) coupled with ‘newspeak’ – a form of English that was constantly being reduced in scope, meaning that ideology and thought had to be reduced to simplistic and polemic terms. To Orwell it was a mechanism for thought control: people were glibly told what to think, and given a reduced tool-set with which to express it.

There’s more than one way of reducing language to polemic that serves authoritarians, of course. A limited vocabulary is one. Another is to reduce the length of the messages. Let’s say – oh, maybe 140 characters?

The horrifying part is that Orwell’s dystopian vision was a present reality when he wrote the novel in the late 1940s. The original title of his novel – “1948” – says it all. Both 1984 and the earlier Animal Farm were a general riff on the authoritarian societies of his day, and a specific dig at the 1940s reality of the Stalinist Soviet Union. His ‘newspeak’ was directly modelled on the linguistic contractions the Soviets applied to the words with which they described their institutions and ideals. The truth was whatever Stalin’s regime said it was. Orwell wondered how that might work in English – extending his ideas further in an essay on the very subject, which you can read online here:


But Orwell also felt that what he was exploring through the metaphor of fiction was, in truth, a very real part of the human condition. It was all to do with the absolute power that the authoritarian state he portrayed had over the individual. The fact that he wrote this directly in wake of the Second World War, where one of the world’s two giant dictatorships had just been defeated, further underscored what he was getting at. If an authoritarian dictatorship emerged, the cost of stopping such a government was going to be very, very high for the rest of the world.

The fact that he still conceived of the possibility as a danger after the defeat of one of the worst such dictatorships on the planet made clear that, to Orwell, the spectre of the Axis wasn’t an isolated incident. It was integral with one of the ways humans behave. And Orwell thought it was a real and present danger, one still upon the world even in wake of the Second World War, and about which he had to warn people.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

7 thoughts on “Orwell’s ‘1984’ and the alternative truth

  1. Isn’t it also true that Orwell based his work at least on part on English society? I remember reading one of his essays about his first year at an English public school (I hope I’m using the right nomenclature) that seemed, in the modern phrase, quite “Orwellian.”

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    1. Yes I think he did – including the power-structures of those quintessentially British institutions. I suspect Oxford inspired him too (and I saw similarly ‘authoritarian’ conduct in the New Zealand student community, half a century after Blair’s experiences.) In an underlying sense, I guess it underscores the ubiquity of the behaviour as an expression of human nature.


    1. Oh, I think they were risking it – there was a strong fascist movement there, inter-war and the potential for Britain to slide that way was certainly there. I think Winston Churchill was VERY well aware of the issues, just as Orwell was. Churchill was aware that England had already gone there, historically, having written his ‘History of the English Speaking People’ – he knew what Oliver Cromwell was, and had done! And it wasn’t going to happen again in the UK on Churchill’s watch, either from within, or by being imposed by Herr Hitler.

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  2. Hmm interesting post- I do find that these days, some people speak in terms that are very ideologically driven and have very little meaning to people outside the “in” group- both on the left and the right frankly (which explains why both the left and right are currently using 1984 to prop up their political agendas nowadays). Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s just a limited vocabulary- it can also apply to incredibly articulate individuals who use obscure (and often made up) language in order to make their point. And I realise this is all quite vague- but I don’t want to put this into terms that will box me into an ideological bracket!

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