For most of my adult life, I’ve heard about the eerie comparisons between George Orwell’s 1984 and our present day. After reading, or rather listening to the audiobook, 1984 again recently I noticed not only the similarities, but also some stark contrasts between Orwell’s vision of the future and our present day.
Most of the oft-mentioned comparisons to 1984 involve Big Brother, and indeed the first mention of the telescreen and Thought Police does sound remarkably similar to the NSA. “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
However, later in 1984 Orwell makes it clear that the Thought Police and the several Ministries of Oceania (Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Love & Ministry of Plenty) were only concerned with members of The Party. “As the Party slogan put it:‘Proles and animals are free’” with proles being used as shorthand for the proletariat, i.e. the working class. This seems to be the complete opposite of our present day, where the various laws, statutes, and regulations are applied zealously against the average American while bureaucrats, politicians, and other government agents are rarely punished for actions that violate someone’s rights.
Aside from this major difference between Orwell’s 1984 and present day, some of the slogans of The Party seem to have seemingly been implemented in multiple ways by governments at various levels. “‘There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,’ [O’Brien] said. ‘Repeat it, if you please.’
‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ repeated Winston obediently.” What better way to control the past than to control what is taught? This is done largely through compulsory education laws and government run schools. And by controlling what is taught and what is allowed to be taught, the bureaucrats and politicians essentially ensure that they control the past, and thus the future.
By doing so, they try to ensure the populace remains complacent. As Orwell writes, “The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”
While we do have standards of comparison – such as the Human Freedom Index & the Freedom in the World Index – to show that we are in fact being oppressed, the vast majority of people will simply deny that they are being oppressed under the guise of “well, it’s better here than it is in (fill in the blank dictatorship).” This is the essence of cognitive dissonance, or what Orwell called doublethink, “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”
Whether or not the world of 1984 is better than our present day is not a valid question. The question is: what’s the best way to have people recognize the tyranny around them without dismissing it because “it could be worse”?