In my last post, I captioned an image with the word “Orwellian,” intending a reference to the works of George Orwell, such as 1984 and Politics and the English Language. Now, The New York Times reports that 1984, published in 1949, is surging to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.
What does “Orwellian” mean? This short video by Noah Tavlin for TED-Ed lays it out clearly and beautifully. While authoritarian governments are known to employ Orwellian tactics, Orwellian means more than just authoritarianism. The term refers to how people in power manipulate language to control the thoughts, opinions, and actions of others, and thus, their very reality. Deception is a key linguistic strategy for manipulation, and a constant barrage of deception diminishes the individual’s sense of reality. This makes the individual dependent on those in power for “truth,” which serves the goal of promoting unquestioning adherence to the ideology of the powerful.
After watching Tavlin’s video, I was reminded of how deeply communication is entwined with projects of social change. I was also reminded that, while “communication for social change” sounds like a positive endeavor, the term itself has no inherent morality: communication can be used to foster both constructive and destructive social change. Communication is simply a tool, one that immoral actors can wield as easily and well as moral actors.
I am heartened to see the renewed interest in 1984. In a period where political leaders routinely and unabashedly lie in the face of concrete and easily retrievable contrary evidence, where a President can tell citizens not to believe photos of inauguration crowds that they can see with their own eyes, where newspaper editors debate whether it is proper to call a lie a lie, where an advisor to the President tries to silence the media by making it “the opposition party,” where another advisor to the President suggests that there are such things as “alternative facts,” we have never needed Orwell’s insights more.