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Nineteen Eighty-Four Revisited, Part III:
What Orwell Can Still Teach Us

[1]

Soviet propaganda poster from 1931 telling the workers that the 5-year plan can be completed in 4 years with enough enthusiasm.

3,175 words

Part 1 here [2], Part 2 here [3]

4. Doublethink

Among the many useful concepts bequeathed to us by Orwell, “doublethink” tops the list. It is a priceless tool for understanding how “normies” function within the repressive, PC societies of the West. The novel offers us two separate discussions of doublethink, which complement each other. The first occurs early in the story, and is the most famous passage dealing with the term:

Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, 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. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. [pp. 37-38][1] [4]

The second passage, also worth quoting at length, occurs much later, and is put into the voice of Emmanuel Goldstein in his Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism:

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of Doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. 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. Even in using the word Doublethink it is necessary to exercise Doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of Doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. Ultimately it is by means of Doublethink that the Party has been able – and may, for all we know, continue to be able for thousands of years – to arrest the course of history. [p. 223]

We all have the sense that we know exactly what Orwell is talking about, and that we have all witnessed doublethink in action. I suggest, however, that if one really takes care with how Orwell describes the meaning of doublethink, the concept is actually not that easy to understand. The reason, as I will suggest in a moment, has nothing to do with how Orwell has formulated it. In fact, he gives a very precise description. Instead, the difficulty of the concept is directly related to the inherently baffling nature of human psychology. Before coming to this important point, however, let’s consider some examples of doublethink from the world around us:

The vast majority of Leftists are oblivious to these contradictions. If they are mentioned, Leftists usually become impatient and annoyed and quickly forget that anything has been said to them at all. Of course, as I point out in my essay on Haidt, relativism often serves Leftists as a tactical device: they revert to this position when confronted with moral judgments with which they disagree; they implicitly regard their own judgments as absolute and non-relative.”

My readers are as capable as I am at coming up with further examples – many more than I could possibly produce. Nevertheless, what is puzzling is Orwell’s insistence that doublethink is practiced consciously. In all the examples I have given above, it seems (at least on the surface) that people are likely unaware of the grossly contradictory nature of their thinking; it seems as if they are practicing self-deception, and, of course, self-deception is almost always unconscious. Nevertheless, Orwell is quite clear in his insistence that doublethink is a conscious act: “That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness”; “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt”; “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them . . .”

The problem we run up against here is not a problem with Orwell, or even with understanding Orwell. It is a problem of understanding the dark, unsanitary depths of most human souls. We encounter the same difficulty in really trying to understand O’Brien’s claim that the Party seeks power “entirely for its own sake,” and has no genuine ideals: “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (pp. 275-276). But this leaves you and I, and others like us, incredulous. How can this be? Surely the Party cannot consciously seek power purely for its own sake; surely they must at least deceive themselves into thinking that they are advancing some sort of cause or ideal. Well, undoubtedly some of them do deceive themselves. But Orwell’s brilliance is in bringing us face to face with a side of human nature – the conscious pursuit of power for its own sake – that we either have denied in ourselves, or of which we have only a small share. Because I find it hard to imagine seeking power outside of the advancement of some ideal, I find the psychology of pure power-seeking to be baffling. It is like trying to understand the motives of an entirely different species. And this gives them an advantage over me, the pure power-seekers. I will always be duped by them – until I recognize them for what they are, and recognize that they are everywhere; that, in fact, they almost the entirety of our political class.

It is similarly baffling to me that anyone can consciously deceive themselves; I find it utterly inexplicable. But here, too, Orwell’s brilliance consists in forcing us to recognize that there are human beings out there whose minds work very differently from ours; and that they indeed constitute the majority of humanity. (And should any of this really surprise us? Genuine idealists and genuinely honest thinkers are admired precisely because they are rare.)

Liberal academics can provide us with excellent examples of the conscious doublethinker. In my time I have encountered a number of such academics – some of them genuinely nice people, who practiced a conscious form of self-deception. If I happened to gingerly broach some outré topic or mention some inconvenient truth, I often got an answer such as, “But we can’t think that.” I remember one academic – an exceptionally nice, middle-aged scholar of what is known as “modern Brit lit crit” – who used exactly these words when I brought up one well-known author’s belief that men and women are quite different from each other. “But we can’t think that.” She did not assert that what I had said was false; she meant instead that I had ventured into the Forbidden Zone, and she was trying to pull me out before it was too late. Truth, you see, is no defense. There are certain things we are obliged not to say or think; instead, we are obliged to say and think their opposites. One has the sense that these people believe that somehow, if certain truths remain unuttered and desirable falsehoods are doggedly asserted, reality will gradually reshape itself into the image of the false, and the false will become the new true.

Most people have forgotten – or were never aware – that Orwell mentions that doublethink is one of two synonymous terms. The other is “reality control,” which is “Oldspeak” for doublethink. “Reality control,” like most Oldspeak terms, puts the matter much more clearly. Academics such as the one I just described, actively and consciously practice “Reality Control”: They choose, willfully, to ignore certain facts of reality, and to insist on an alternate reality that does not, in fact, exist. And they must do this, for two reasons. First, their commitment to their ideology demands it, for the ideology is fundamentally set against what is real and true. Second, most academics – and, in general, most liberals – are “oversocialized”: trained, exceedingly well, to feel shame if they go against the values and expectations of their peer group. Thus, they are more concerned with “fitting in” and expressing the “right” opinions, than they are with seeking truth or standing up for what is genuinely right.

Orwell mentions a related Newspeak term which, unlike doublethink, has not found its way into common usage: crimestop:

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. [p. 220]

The academic I described earlier (who told me “we can’t think that”) was practicing crimestop. Literally, of course, crimestop is a technique for preventing thoughtcrime, in one’s own mind. I submit that the description of crimestop just quoted is one of many striking examples of how Nineteen Eighty-Four reaches across the decades to speak to us about the present day. It is an exact description of the thought process of today’s liberals, when confronted with facts.

There is more, however. Orwell tells us that the protective stupidity of crimestop is not enough. In addition, there is blackwhite:

Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. [p. 221]

In other words, the ability to stop short before reaching thoughtcrime (crimestop) is not sufficient. In addition, one must be ready and able to say and to believe whatever lies the ideology requires. Crimestop is a purely negative act: stopping thought before it becomes crime. Blackwhite is its positive counterpart: believing whatever the Party’s ideology requires one to believe. We have seen, in recent years, blackwhite in action, as liberals rush to embrace whatever new absurdity authority figures require of them, especially those that are completely divorced from reality: “rape culture,” transgender, “toxic masculinity,” “white privilege,” “Black Lives Matter” (and its completely discredited claim that whites – especially white police – are targeting and victimizing blacks), and so on. Orwell tells us, in fact, that it is crimestop and blackwhite together that actually constitute doublethink. Someone who manages to practice doublethink, by the way, is called in Newspeak a goodthinker (p. 220). This is strikingly like the German term Gutmensch [8] (“good person” or “good human”), currently used to describe politically correct ideological conformists.

It’s clear what doublethink is, and it’s clear that it is practiced by people all around us – by Leftists, and by poor, sad normies just trying to get through life without getting into trouble. What remains to be touched on is the motivation of the powerful and influential people who encourage doublethink. It is tempting, as always, to immediately go for the explanation that doublethink is encouraged in order to prop up a false ideology, in which those powerful and influential people misguidedly believe. This is, again, at least partly true.

But I think it is time for us to begin to wean ourselves off this explanation (which is unintentionally flattering to our opponents) and to consider Orwell’s darker take on things. In other words, it is time to consider whether the whole sordid game of Leftist doublethink isn’t, in the end, promoted and encouraged because of the desire of some people for power over others; power for its own sake. As an illustration of this, I will close with a quotation I recently ran across. It appeared recently in a video by Paul Joseph Watson [9]. He does not name the author, saying only that he is “an ex-occupant of Soviet Russia,” and I have not been able to track down the source. As germane as this quotation is to our discussion of Nineteen Eighty-Four, please note the speaker is not thinking of the novel. He is describing the reality of Communism, so brilliantly dissected by Orwell:

The purpose of official Soviet propaganda – and this, of course, would hold true for any totalitarian society – was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to intimidate and, even more importantly, to humiliate people into silence and meek submissiveness, by causing them to realize their utter helplessness against (and thus, inevitably, their partial complicity in) the onslaught of shamelessly obvious, self-evident, triumphantly invincible lies. One permanently had to exist – at least, in any collective, marginally public setting even slightly outside the tightly narrow zone of one’s complete trust and personal comfort – in a state of pretend acquiescence to (and, worse, forced vocal support of) the openly fraudulent and relentlessly assertive, inverted “alternative” reality, whose ceaseless pressure gradually corroded and deadened one’s spirit, crippled one psychologically, caused one to become cynically apathetic and inwardly ashamed of oneself because of one’s total impotence to resist being a part, no matter how small, of that self-perpetuating irreality of infinite all-out gaslighting: that is to say the kind of person – a broken, defeated, dully obedient liar – the regime found it the easiest to control.

Note

[1] [10] I will employ intertextual references to the following edition: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992).