A key element of most modern dystopian texts is the manipulation and alteration of language to control the masses. Manipulation of language by world leaders is a daily occurrence in the modern world, and to understand this and equip ourselves to against this, we must learn from not only the past and the present, but from the several futures which dystopian texts propose. These texts warn us of what can happen if we remain complacent and allow our leaders to decide what is best for us. Three texts that highlight the impacts of language manipulation to control are George Orwell’s “1984”, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaids Tale”, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.
To understand the science behind Propaganda, we must first look into the past. “The Death of Truth” is a Guardian article by Piers Brendon about the propaganda practices of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s and 40s. Propaganda (information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view) was the key to Hitler’s success in gaining Germany’s support. The propaganda that was most successful in gaining Nazi monopoly was not the traditional media of radio, posters, and television, but the condemnation of certain literature and art as “un-german”. The suggestion that the existence of art created by Jews, Homosexuals, Pacifists, Liberals, Marxists, etcetera is subversive or wrong in the first place, is a form of propaganda. Hitler’s solution to this “decadent art” was a mass book burning, in which thousands of students nation-wide purloined this literature from public libraries, which Hitler dubbed “Intellectual Brothels” and burned them in a ceremonial ritual. The people of Germany now had no way of accessing this literature and the viewpoints it expresses, so the path of least resistance was to follow the populist ideas of Nazism. In doing this, Hitler could control the reality of the German population, as the Nazi ideology was now the only accessible guide to how one should behave. In the words of Martin Heidegger, the rector of Freiburg University, “The Fuhrer himself, and he alone, is Germany’s reality”. “Stalin’s assault on reality was equally grotesque”. “He, too, insisted that the truth was what he said it was”. Russians living in the famine (which Stalin created by exporting grain rather than feeding his own people) were “At public meetings, and even in private conversations, obliged to repeat in ritual fashion grotesque falsehoods about themselves, the world, and the Soviet Union, and at the same time to keep silent about things they knew very well […] Dual consciousness flourished”. Russians would know exactly the nature of the party’s crimes but could be instantly killed for speaking out, so they would choose instead to follow the party’s lies, and in doing so develop a part of their brains that did, in fact, believe the grotesque falsehoods. In Soviet Russia, unlike Nazi Germany, the public’s opinion on the state’s practices was highly negative, but this was deemed irrelevant because they were forced to follow regardless.
George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four” during World War Two. Orwell took the most frightening aspects of totalitarian leadership at the time and projected them into the future to warn the people of what could happen when tyranny is left unchecked. Orwell recognized first and foremost the importance of language and words, and their ability to control the masses. He showed this in “1984” with the creation of Newspeak, the new language of Oceania. As explained to Winston by his friend Syne, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” Much like Hitler, the Party uses intricate and subtle techniques to control the range of thought of the people. Hitler did this by limiting access to certain viewpoints, and the party in “1984” take it one step further by limiting the way in which people express themselves so that even if subversive thoughts or ideas exist, the people of Oceania will eventually have no words to express them in. Not only does Newspeak restrict the breadth of thought by doing away with “purposeless adjectives” – for example replacing “bad” with “un-good”, it also contains several contradictory meanings which are used to reinforce the party’s facade of truth and righteousness. For example, the names of the government departments: The Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) deals with lies, the Ministry of Peace (Minipax) deals with war, and the Ministry of Love (miniluv) deals with law-enforcement and torture. Orwell explored the Stalinist idea of dual consciousness, which he dubbed “doublethink”. Doublethink is “the ability to hold two completely contradictory thoughts simultaneously while believing both of them to be true”. Much like the people of Stalin’s Russia, the people of Oceania are watched so closely that in order to stay alive, they must learn this elaborate discipline in order to hide their thoughts. This fear is key to the success of the party, as thoughts are harmless when they are unable to be communicated. Through doublethink, most citizens choose to ignore certain facts and live their lives in peaceful ignorance. Like Winston, people who disagree with the party’s practices feel alone and isolated and therefore pose no real threat to those in power.
In “The Handmaids Tale” by Margaret Atwood, the power of language to control is equally evident. The suppression of women, which is the basis of Gilead’s fundamentalist Christian regime, is achieved through “re-education” in which women are taught that they are the appendages of men and that reading and writing, as well as independent thought in general, goes against God’s will. Much like in “1984”, the government’s policies are riddled with sinister double meanings, and this is reflected in the language that the people are forced to speak. The customary farewell, “Under his Eye” is a biblical reference which refers to God’s protecting eye over humans, but in Gilead, it holds the sinister undertone that they are under constant government surveillance. Through manipulating the bible and restricting the women’s access to literature, the authoritarian state disguises its true motives of power and control behind their fundamentalist interpretation of the bible. Like in “1984”, the majority of the oppressed find it easier to live in ignorance, ignoring the facts that make them uneasy, and carrying out their “civic duty” of being systematically raped. The handmaids are stripped of their linguistic power, and their individuality, most clearly through their names. They are renamed as the appendages of the men they serve with the formula of “of”+[name]: Ofglen, Offred. They are no longer humans but objects of the state and the men that control it.
Unlike “1984”, and “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the governing powers in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” use happiness and a more blissful form of ignorance to control the masses. However, the centrality of language as a tool for control remains. Much like Atwood’s handmaidens, the gaining of knowledge through texts is made impossible by the state, for fear of sophisticated thought that may contradict the practices of the state. The people of the “World State”, who are split into five genetically identical classes or “castes”, instead learn through various forms of pre and postnatal conditioning that takes place at “conditioning centers” around the world. One of the most influential forms of conditioning is a process called hypnopaedia, which is referred to by a conditioning director as “the greatest moralizing and socializing force of all time.” A recorded voice whispers to the hundreds of sleeping children at each conditioning center, explaining in a soft, soothing tone what their place is in the class system and how they should act because of this. “Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with the Delta children. And Epsilons are worse”. Messages like this, in simple English, are repeated hundreds of times over until they become embedded in the nature of the children. This is the ultimate violation of human individuality. It goes further than the authorities “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” because the manipulation through language occurs when the human is most vulnerable; as a sleeping infant. These embedded moral codes, as a compliment to the genetic uniformity of the people of the world state, create a population that is more robotic than human; A population that can be controlled absolutely.
As upper-middle-class citizens of the first world, we live in a society that is controlled by language in alarmingly similar ways to the people of Germany and Russia in the early 1900s, and the fictional citizens of Oceana, Gilead, and the World State. The literature we are exposed to is constantly being filtered by powerful corporations such as Google and Facebook, particularly in the filtering of advertising. These corporations are far less sophisticated in their propaganda techniques than those in the future worlds that Orwell, Atwood, and Huxley suggest, however, we still succumb to them. We regard the authoritarian states of the early 1900s as some of humanity’s darkest times, yet we are controlled by advertising and consumerism through techniques almost identical to those of Hitler and Stalin. We have become numb to the power of language, to the point where a catchphrase such as Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, which has no factual basis and holds a sinister reference to the slave-based economy of early America, is believed purely because it sounds good. In reading dystopian literature, we can examine these proposed futures and arm ourselves against their contemporary counterparts. We can learn to recognize the manipulation of language that takes place daily in the world around us for what it is, and therefore make our minds less malleable at the hands of our superiors.