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Why I teach 1984.

In Books, Movies and Television on January 28, 2017 at 6:54 pm

I feel vindicated.

I have been asked countless times, “Do you still teach that?  I read it when I was in school.”  This past week George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, topped Amazon’s bestseller list.  There is so much that recommends it.  One of the reasons everyone should read Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it is a relevant warning.  It is so masterfully articulated that the terms Orwellian, Big Brother and double-think evoke and almost visceral response in those who’ve read it.  Consequently, these terms are powerful weapons against the abuse of power.

This week, Kellyanne Conway was accused of double-think when she used the phrase “alternative facts” in defence of President Trump’s press secretary’s assertion that 500 000 is greater than 1.8 million.

One of the reasons I am so committed to teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four every year, is to explore with students the necessary conditions that make double-think possible.  These conditions are, apparently, present in our “post truth” culture right now–as is evidenced by the phrase, “alternative fact.”

What are these conditions?

[Spoiler Alert]

One of the main ones is articulated by O’Brian in Part 3 of the novel.  O’Brian’s task is to “cure” Winston from his mistaken view of reality.  Winston’s error?  A belief in objective reality.  In a very early session, Winston objects to O’Brian’s assertion that “we, The Party, control . . . all memories.”  Winston challenges, “It is outside oneself.  How can you control memory?”  Winston is appealing to the existence of an external reality.  O’Brian counters,

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external.  Reality exists in the human mind and no where else.  Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes . . . only in the mind of the Party.  . . .  Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is the truth.”

(Sound familiar?)

Winston has a hard time understanding this; he argues that the Party doesn’t control the climate or gravity.  O’Brian’s response:

We control matter, because we control the mind.  Reality is inside the skull. . . .  There is nothing we could not do.  Invisibility, levitation–anything.  I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to.  . . .   You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature.  We make the laws of Nature.

O’Brian is simply saying that reality or truth isn’t a thing in itself, it is defined by human minds.   Consequently, if one controls human minds, then one controls reality.

For this conclusion to be true, O’Brian’s first premise must be true.  Is reality defined by human minds or is Winston right, does reality or truth exist outside the skull?

Human beings have always believed that reality or truth exist outside the human–the Ancient Greeks called it the kosmos, Taoists and Buddhists think of it as a transcendent truth, the Jews and Muslims understand it to be in a transcendent God, Christians find it in the person of Jesus Christ  (this is another majority view held by all religions).

Recently, within the last 150 years or so, something changed in our culture–in the West.  We broke with the rest of humanity and began to consider the possibility that the universe might be made up of just material.  This meant that there is no God or gods or transcendent truth.  Objective reality had not place to live but in matter.

All this has lead to a different way of talking about truth.  Truth and fact used to mean different things.  You used to be able to call all sorts of things true, not just things like,

  • water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom
  • the Battle of Hastings was in 1066
  • 2+2=4

but sentiments could also fall under the heading of “truth”:

  • the waterfall is sublime
  • the Parthenon is beautiful
  • courage is better than cowardice

In a world of only matter, truth is reduced to fact.  The rest of what used to be truth has to find a different place to live–it did.  It took up residence in individual human minds.  The truths in the second list are now “just” opinions–or are said to be merely subjective.

We’ve been going along quite happily so far with our separation of fact and opinion, but it couldn’t last.  As Orwell warned, without an external objective reality, rational facts will eventually go the way of rational sentiments.  If the truth is in the mind, then the, so called, facts have no more chance than did true sentiments.  This is how O’Brian can state with confidence that 2+2=5 if Big Brother says it does.

This is what happened this past week on Meet The Press.  It was officially declared by a representative of the President of the United States of America that 500 000 was greater than 1.8 million.

When we separated the mind from the world outside the mind, the first casualty was the loss of true sentiments, but it was only a matter of time till the facts themselves fell victim to the denial of objective reality.

The only way to get back to reality is to recover the pre-modern idea of objective truth. Objective truth, not only links reason to reality, but grounds sentiment as well. This is expressed in The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis argues that emotions are not “in themselves contrary to reason” (19).   Some sentiments are reasonable or unreasonable only as they conform, or fail to conform, to something else–to some external standard.  He said that “a philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can only lead to ruin” for it “has nothing, in the long run, to divide it from devil worship” (“Poison” 80-81).

It is appropriate to be alarmed by the “double-speak” coming from the White House this past week, but we oughtn’t be surprised–Orwell warned us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that this was coming.  It has apparently arrived.