The charming reality of Newspeak

I’ve recently finished reading both Animal Farm and 1984, by George Orwell. To be more precise, I finished listenening to the audiobook version by Stephen Fry, who I learned to appreciate both as an actor and narrator.

In his introduction to both books, Fry admits to have never read Orwell’s most famous books until later in his life. He said he was “intimidated” by how famous and potentially complicated they were, especially when you consider their legacy and the effect they had, and still have, in the political debate.

Fry argues, however, that despite this “too-intellectual-for-you” reputation, the books are very easy to read and understand. I completely agree with him now, especially regarding Animal Farm.

When it comes to 1984, however, one cannot underestimate how deeply unsettling the world depicted by the book looks like. It’s a story that at times seems impossible, and at other times seems way too real.

I haven’t read Brave New World yet, by Huxley. I know that many people today say that Huxley’s dystopian world is more similar to ours. We’ll see. I wish we didn’t have to compare our current times to any of those two books, but here we are.

What impressed me about 1984, however, was the central role that Newspeak had in the ever-more-strangling grip that the ruling party (Ingsoc) has over society.

Orwell goes to great legths to explain why a language that shrinks every day is a fundamental instrument of tyranny. Life for the common folks must be as simple as possible, in order for the ruling party to control every aspect of it: people must not only obey the regime, but be physically and intellectually unable to think anything that is not “orthodox”, making them effectively incapable to even think of overthrowing the party.

Removing words and simplifying the meaning of those words that don’t get the axe is the goal of Newspeak.

Without even going deeper into the concepts of Doublethink and Thoughtcrime, which are highly fascinating in their own right, I couldn’t help but notice how powerful something similar to the reduction of words can be in everyday’s life.

At work, I’m currently I’m busy with an initiative which has the goal to improve the way we collaborate and share knowledge. In order to do this, many of my colleagues will have to “unlearn” old habits and learn new one.

Over the course of my career, I’ve come to realize that the former is much harder to achieve than the latter, which might seem counterintuitive if you’ve never led a change management initiative.

This is why what Orwell created with his concept of Newspeak seemed so appealing and powerful to me.

If I could just erase a few words (and therefore the concepts behind them) from the minds of my colleagues, the “unlearning” part would be a lot easier than it is right now. I could then focus on making people more efficient at what they do by the introduction of new, “orthodox” habits.

But if you start doing this, where would you draw the line, where would you stop?

It’s easy to think that I would stop at the earliest possible moment, if given the chance. To influence the people around you just enough that it can still be thought of as achieving “their own good”. But how do you objectively judge that? And even if you can, why stop there?

We humans are masters at finding excuses for ourselves, and telling us that we are doing something for someone else’s own good.

The harsh reality of it is probably what Orwell describes in the final part of his book, when he goes deeper and deeper into the mechanics and workings of the Ingsoc party and their Weltanschauung (German word for “world view”),

He offers a brutal, but effective description, which lingers with you after you finish reading the book.

I wonder what the Newspeak word for “perfect cautionary tale” would be. But then again, there is no need for cautionary tales in the world of 1984. Therefore, there would be no such word in the Newspeak dictionary.

At best, it would be referred to as “Crimethink”.