There’s a poignent moment in George Orwell’s classic 1984 when the protagonist, Winston Smith, reflects on the surreal state of affairs under the dictatorship of Big Brother. How is reality now determined? In a society where freedom is snuffed out, how are one’s thoughts about the outside world shaped? Can we trust our instincts, our experiences, our common sense? Not in Orwell’s world. “Trust Us!” says the Party. Winston internally grapples with this conflict:
Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not only that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two makes four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable–what then?
Winston rebels against this brief flirtation with radical skepticism. “Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.” In an act of defiance, he jots down in his journal, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
It might strike some as odd to draw comparisons between Orwell’s fictional Oceania and the United States in 2016. We hear about “freedom” all the time, so how could there be any overlapping between our two worlds? But in many significant ways, the parallels are striking. The assault on language is one example.
Winston’s acquaintance, Syme, is a nerdy wordsmith who is in the process of obliterating traditional words and replacing them with a mind-numbing lexicon called Newspeak. This new vocabulary will make it possible to gain total control over the minds of the people by restricting their thoughts. Syme giddily relays to Winston,
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. . . . The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.
Interestingly, Winston predicts that it won’t be long before Syme himself is rubbed out by the authorities for being too much of a thinker.
Not long ago, late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lamented in a dissent that “words have no meaning”. He was expressing frustration with the Court’s repeated and strained legalistic gyrations with the text of Obamacare. In jurisprudence, if the language of a law can be bended and manipulated at whim by a judge in order to preserve it, what’s the point of language?
Perhaps however the most significant parallel between Orwell’s classic work and our time is the growing movement to deny the validity of common sense in the arena of human sexuality. Here too though, the manipulation of language plays a significant role.
The underlying principal of the transgender movement states that biology doesn’t matter when it comes to identifying one’s sex, and that reality in that regard is “fluid”, and can be determined by the mind. The mind does not need to conform to the external world, to what is, but vice versa. Ever since Descartes, Aristotle’s “philosophy of common sense” (which teaches that knowledge about the world comes to us through our senses) has been watered down so that today, we can no longer draw basic conclusions from our senses about reality. Aristotle and Aquinas tell us to trust our senses. “Water is wet.” Modernity tells us to doubt them and even override them if necessary to create a new reality. “Bruce Jenner is a woman.” This makes one intolerant for daring to challenge the claim that a man playing dress-up with lipstick and a skirt is a woman. The words “man” and “woman” no longer correspond to a human person with a particular biological makeup, but rather to a process of identification within the mind. Once more, language is bastardized to fit a new construct.
To get a sense of where we’re going in 2016, read 1984.