In his novel 1984, George Orwell shows us what it’s like to live in the totalitarian state of Oceania, where basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly are distant memories. Through the lens of Winston, the protagonist of his work, Orwell explores how surveillance, propaganda and punishment of dissenters can be used by governments to maintain control and increase their power.
Reading Orwell’s dystopian novel back in 2016, I would have never imagined how real some of his cautious warnings and graphic imagery could become real only five years later. In this post, I want to take a look at some of the parallels between 1984 and 2020-2021, and discuss how you can learn and benefit from the current situation.
Emmanuel Goldstein and The Virus
In 1984, Orwell introduces Emmanuel Goldstein as the ‘enemy of the people’. It is toward him that members of the Party unleash their anger and aggression, by participating in a ritual known as the Two Minutes Hate.
Goldstein is effectively seen as the enemy – and Orwell evens goes so far as to say ‘the [shear] thought of [this character] produced fear and anger automatically.’ Yet, in spite of this hatred, Goldstein’s power only seems to increase every day.
We can see a similar pattern when it comes to the coronavirus. First introduced into public consciousness in December 2019, the virus has become an ‘invisible enemy’ that is demonised by leaders around the world.
Just like Goldstein, who was ‘hated and despised’ by everyone, the virus is a regular feature in the media. Yet despite the constant coverage (and the many appeals to protect ourselves against the virus), its influence does not seem to grow less.
In fact, it seems as though declaring war on the virus may have a counter-productive effect. War rhetoric (such as telling people to ‘hunker down for the long battle ahead and support healthcare workers who are fighting on the front lines) can spread fear and panic, with some going so far as to wear hazmat suits to ward off what they view as an extreme threat.
Instead of getting caught up in these external projections, we can think about where we try to make a bogeyman out of the outside world. Here are some questions you can ask to uncover your projections:
- Where do you blame other people for your own difficulties and mistakes?
- Which groups of people do you hate and why?
- Who do you think is responsible for my career, relationships, and friendships?
- Do you ever criticise others to feel better about yourself?
Big Brother is Watching You
‘Big Brother is watching you’ is perhaps the most famous quote from Orwell’s novel 1984. It is a consolation to devoted members of the Party, who can trust that they will be protected against all evil by the mysterious, yet powerful and omnipresent gaze of Big Brother.
On the other hand, the slogan may well be the worst nightmare of the people who secretly oppose the Party. To them, the all-watching eye can spark extreme anxiety. The dissidents are afraid of being caught and suffering the dreaded fate of many others before them, knowing that telescreens watch their every move.
This dichotomy is also present in the present debate surrounding the use of satellites and cellular location data to monitor compliance to social distancing and quarantine rules. While part of the population supports these plans because they could potentially reduce the spread of the virus, another group is concerned that increasing police presence and tech-based surveillance could encroach upon their personal freedom and expose incidents of non-compliance.
Take a moment to reflect which group you identify with most. Are you scared of getting ill because of the reckless behaviours of others? Or do worry that we might end up with a totalitarian government that scrutinises your every move?
These lines of thought are both driven by different fears: a fear of death by illness on the one hand, and the fear of punishment, marginalisation and observation on the other hand. The secret to thriving in the current times is that you need to overcome these fears to live a meaningful and happy life.
The Modern Thought Police
In the novel 1984, the thought police are a secret force that uncover and punish thoughtcrime, an offence committed by those whose personal and political thoughts are unapproved by the Party. The Though Police also ensures that people who challenge the status quo and question the authority of Big Brother can be neutralised before posing a threat to the authority of the Party.
Similarly, medical professionals who disagree with the dominant COVID-narrative are being de-platformed or marginalised in the mainstream media. Social channels like Facebook and YouTube officially censor content that conflicts with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on the coronavirus – leading to a push for more draconic restrictions.
The president of the Robert Koch Institute, Lothar Wieler, even went so far as to say in an interview that the coronavirus rules must never be questioned. Essentially, he is suggesting that alternative viewpoints should not be discussed such that a healthy debate becomes impossible.
At an individual level, these developments show us that we might be unwilling to accept viewpoints that differ from our own. If you think this might be the case, you can ask yourself:
- What firm beliefs do you hold – and how do you react if they are challenged?
- Can you truly accept that there are people who disagree with your beliefs?
- Where do you think you are the only one who knows the right answer or absolute truth?
- Are there any topics that you refuse to talk about?
- Do you hold back your thoughts because you are scared what other people think of you?
Doublethink is ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’. It involves abusing the power of logic to accept incongruities and is clearly seen in the Party slogans ‘War is Peace’, ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength’ in the novel 1984.
Along with the phenomenon of doublethink, 1984 also shows us how conflicting information can be covered up. For instance, when Winston finds incriminating records that expose the lies of the Party, he simply discards them into a ‘memory hole’ so the files are burnt and the memories forgotten about.
Such doublethink and hiding of information can also be seen regarding the coronavirus, with a fair number of politicians, journalists and doctors making contradictory statements on the pandemic.
One such example is the German health minister Jens Spahn, who announced in September that the government would not close shops again – and yet only 3 months later Germany did exactly that.
Another paradox of the present time is that several German politicians have called for an extension of the current lockdown because it didn’t work as well as they hoped. However, to continue with a policy that has not had the desired effect in the past, in the hopes that it will work in the future is the type of wishful thinking that defies basic logic.
If a strategy doesn’t work, simply continuing with that strategy won’t solve your problem. Instead, you would need to change your strategy to reasonable expect a new result. Yet the failure to acknowledge this suggests that the authorities subscribe to the belief that ‘to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy is a confession of weakness’ (1984, p. 222).
If you find yourself getting angry or upset at the meandering of government, or the fact that they seem to blindly follow a failed course, ask yourself:
- Where do you cling to a set course (that you know is wrong), because you are afraid to change?
- Where do you fail to keep promises to other people – and how might that harm them?
- Where do you blindly support a person or idea without having really thought about them/it yourself?
- Where do you accept the views of others as your own without any additional questioning?
The Grand Cover-Up
In the novel 1984, Orwell writes that:
‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, [such that] nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’
While outright falsification of facts and dates is still a distant memory, we can already see in 2021 that ideas that run counter to the measures of the state are often held out of the media.
Less desired facts such as evidence against the use of face masks and unwanted vaccine side effects are often hidden from the public eye – creating an vacuum in which it seems as though our governments are always right.
On a personal level, this shows us that we are also trying to cover up facts and hide the truth. Maybe not on the same scale as governments – but how many of us are honest in relationships? Do we exploit information for our own gain or use it manipulate others do what we want? If the lies and secrets in the media are bothering you, see in which part of your life you’ve been led by lies and where you should start speaking the truth.
As, Orwell writes in 1984:
“Hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak ‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used – had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the thought police.” – p. 29
Denouncing neighbours, friends and family also seems to be encouraged in the current times, with one UK minister suggesting back in September that we should report our neighbours to the police if they flout coronavirus rules.
If we are worried about being reported to the authorities for the ‘mistakes’ that we make or if we feel the need to denounce people who don’t abide by the rules, we can think about where we judge the behaviour of others, and why we want to manipulate them to behave in the way we think is right.
We can also challenge ourselves by asking why we think we need external authority to validate and support our beliefs rather than speaking to people directly if something bothers us, or finding a way to be less concerned about the actions of others. Because ultimately, we are only responsible for our OWN LIFE and our OWN ACTIONS – and not the actions of others.
Masking Our True Emotions
‘To wear an improper expression on your face was in itself a punishable offence’ – p. 65
This meant that the people in Oceania had to cover up their true emotions where these were not desired by the rule of the authoritarian Party.
However, such self-surveillance is difficult to master, as shown by the countless people in the novel who got taken away by the thought police for failing to show the required levels of emotional obedience. Even so, most people described in the novel end up masking their true emotions when in public or under observation of a telescreen.
In the current times, many of us also hide how we feel, whether that be by failing to show how policies like the lockdown are affecting us or pretending that everything is normal while hiding behind a face mask that only reveals our eyes (or even being forced to do so due to government regulation).
Take a moment to reflect:
- Why do you want to hide behind a piece of cloth?
- What part of yourself are you afraid showing to others?
- In which situation do you hide your true emotions? Why?
- Do you ever pretend you are okay when you are clearly not?
Despite all the developments outlined before, Orwell also offers two potential solutions for thriving under increased government power and dealing with imposed regulations.
One of these strategies is to rebel against authority – to subtly seek confrontation and defy the rules of the state without breaking any laws. This is practiced by many people within the ‘Querdenker’ or ‘Viruswaarheid’ movements. However, rebellion may lead to repercussions such as negative press coverage, having your home raided, or your licence to practice your profession withdrawn.
Therefore, Orwell also offers a more subtle alternative to outright protest. As readers of the novel 1984 may recall, after being captured by the thought police, Winston is sent to Room 101. Here, he must face his biggest fear – just like many people before him.
While used in the novel as means of torture, Room 101 ironically also offers to a solution to avoid being sucked into the fangs of a powerful government or countermovement.
If we face our biggest fears before we are (symbolically) ordered into Room 101, then neither the coronavirus nor the risk of losing personal liberties due to government control will frighten us.
To help you in this liberating process, I’ve created this list of some of the most common fears triggered by the coronavirus in 2020/2021:
Fear of the Virus
- Fear of becoming ill
- Fear of pain
- Fear of medical procedures / hospitals
- Fear of suffocating
- Fear of dying
- Fear of leaving behind loved ones
Fear of a Powerful State
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of going broke
- Fear of losing everything you own
- Fear of being alone or losing friends
- Fear of being caught and punished
- Fear of being imprisoned / quarantined
- Fear of being marginalised
- Fear of being watched and scrutinised
- Fear of being tortured
To be truly free, we need to overcome these fears.
The first step may be to acknowledge it is ultimately us who decide what emotions we feel in different situations. No matter how scary a situation seems, we choose how we react.
And even if every one of our fears were to come true, we would probably notice they weren’t as bad as we thought. We would still be okay (and even if we didn’t like facing them), we would come out of them stronger.
In the mean time, we would learn a lot about ourselves and the world, and by acknowledging our fears, we would be less frightened going forward.
We could see the positive in any situation and find new ways to make the best of what comes our way. And finally, we would be freer than before, and could choose to live a life that makes us happy. The common tactic of dividing people into two fear-ridden groups (also known as ‘ruling with fear’ and ‘divide and conquer’) would lose power over us.