17 July 2008

Orwellian Terms in Modern Times - Doublethink

In his book 1984, Orwell coined several terms. Two of these seem particularly important in today’s political and cultural climate: doublethink and newspeak.

Doublethink is a particularly powerful idea that allows one to use fact and memory as it suits the moment. Orwell describes doublethink in this way:

"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. (Snip) To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies - all this is indispensably necessary" (214).

“…to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself…” (35).
There appears to be no reason for an individual to employ doublethink for any wholly private reason than self-deception. If one wants to lie to one’s self, then that is by and large a wholly private matter.

But taken in a public, political context, the reasons for employing doublethink are clear: gaining and maintaining power over any politically charged issue. Perhaps the most concise example of this (and also perhaps the most spectacularly comical) was when then-candidate John Kerry stated that he “actually did vote for the $87 billion before [he] voted against it.” This is only one example of Sen. Kerry’s flip-flopping during the 2004 presidential campaign. His desire to twist his words to fit what he thought were the desires of the nation do not necessarily make them doublethink. That he – by any interpretation – really believed at any given time that he was completely, factually correct does. His embrace of contradictory statements in the past to justify his position at the moment was the height of doublethink. It also played a large part in costing him the presidency. But not by much.

Senator Obama seems to be slipping down the same slope that Sen. Kerry did. His positions on Iraq, gun control, abortion, and public campaign finance have all changed – some several times over the course of days. He went from not being able to disown Jeremiah Wright to leaving Wright’s place of worship in a heartbeat, but without any new facts presenting themselves. His recent cha-cha on Iraq may reach Kerry-like heights before long.

But the important thing that the electorate must ask when considering any politician is if the politician really believes what he is saying when he says it. This question is as much about the present as it is about the past, because doublethink does not necessarily reject the past – it co-opts the past as needed and keeps it in the hip-pocket, out of sight, until it is needed again. That this is done to gain and preserve political power is all-important. It is why we must continually have our doublethink detectors out when considering the body politic.

In a future post, I’ll look at newspeak and how it shows itself in our time.

Work Cited: Orwell, George, 1984, New York: Signet, 1949.

No comments: