Classic Remarks: 1984 and the Orwellian State

Classic Remarks
Classic Remarks is a meme that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  We look forward to seeing your responses!


This Week’s Question

George Orwell’s 1984 is often referenced when discussions of privacy and oversight arise.  Do you think an Orwellian state could happen or is that overstating the case?

 

Answer

1984

I enjoy 1984 as a story–it’s tense and presents a world that’s truly horrifying in its attempt to stifle freedom of thought and free will.  However, to me, the book is appealing in the way a story about ghosts or aliens is; the thought of it happening  gives me delicious chills, but I know it’s highly unlikely it actually will happen.

I won’t say with 100% certainty that a society like that in 1984 can never exist; after all, anything is possible under the correct set of circumstances.  However, the problem with creating and maintaining the Orwellian state is that people really don’t want to consent to it.  You need force to create the society, and you need constant force to maintain it. And when you’re using force to maintain a society, people start getting the sense there’s something wrong and maybe they should rebel against you.

The characters in 1984, even though government officials try to keep them content and oblivious of the true nature of history and the current society, are all too aware that there’s something unpleasant going on.  A number of them are actually employed in tasks that contribute to the rewriting of history (see our main character).  When maintaining the fiction of the society requires a large number of workers, there’s a reasonable chance some of those workers will refuse to submit quietly to their given task.  Furthermore, the constant surveillance–even within people’s own homes–is too much of a tip that the government is trying very, very hard to control people.  The main takeaway seems to be that maintaining this type of society takes a lot of effort and a lot of manpower.  It’s difficult to establish in the first place and difficult to keep safe from rebellions.

This why, although I think 1984 is the better story, Brave New World is more prescient dystopian.  In Brave New World, people aren’t forced (too much) to conform to the new world order; they want to conform.  The society offers the people things that are appealing to many people: sexual freedom, recreational drugs, stable employment and a clear place in society, etc.  The people who rebel do so because they seem to have some inherent sense that the manufactured happiness is boring; they aren’t rebelling because the government is too obviously trying to force them to do things they don’t want to do.

So, no, I won’t be fearing the imminent coming of the Orwellian state. I understand we’re getting feasibly closer with the development of new technologies and a growing demand to have more cameras in society for the prevention of crime. However, we’re a long way from willingly giving up our freedom and letting cameras into our homes.  And even though it’s possible to collect a large amount of data about a large number of people, right now there’s no desire and no manpower.  Could the government tap everyone’s phones? Probably. If they wanted. But they don’t, and if they did, they don’t currently have enough employees to deal with all the gathered information.  Maybe in the future desires will change and new technologies will be able to handle the data.  Right now, though, I’m not worried.

What are your thoughts? Link us to your posts in the comments!

Briana

20 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: 1984 and the Orwellian State

  1. Eve Messenger says:

    Whoah, cool thought-provoking topic. To the extreme degree that Big Brother is able monitor and plumb the minds of average citizens, I agree, I don’t see it happening quite that way in our society. However, with all of our society’s cameras, satellite images (and who knows what other crazy surveillance capabilities NSA, etc. has cooked up), plus the sheer fact that SO many people give up their privacy every day by posting every little thing about themselves, I think there’s a trend toward way too things being known about us as individuals than what’s healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It has been fascinating to watch how our concept of privacy has changed. In the early days of the Internet, I remember there were so many tips about how to stay safe online–don’t post your name, your contact info, your picture, etc. Now we willingly post all these things and more, and don’t give much thought to who is collecting our data and why. It’s simply the norm not to have privacy, and I think younger individuals in particular have trouble envisioning life any other way.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I agree. I think that’s how we get to something beginning to look like the society in 1984. How much are we willing to give up privacy in the name of safety? People will agree to cameras in all kinds of places on the basis that it makes them safer. I think it’s the cameras (with audio and apparently constant surveillance) in the home that makes things go too far in the book. Sure, someone might point a camera at their front door under the assumption it will make them safer if they can film a break-in. But who’s going to think it’s totally cool for the government to constantly watch their kitchen and bedroom?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    This book still resonates with a psychological sort of fear that can only be created by the “what if” for me. And to think that Orwell touched on a topic that is still so relevant this many years later. Totalitarianism, while maybe not as likely is some countries is not completely unimaginable or without possibility. Such a moving piece of work! Fantastic post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Maybe it’s in the little areas that this book remains powerful. Even if we don’t expect the Orwellian state to arrive, we can see how technology has encroached into our daily lives, how people manipulate language, etc. The book kind of asks us to be aware of what is happening around us. That awareness doesn’t need to mean that something bad is happening, but hopefully prevents something bad from happening?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lost In A Good Book says:

    Such an interesting post!! If we’re looking at 1984 primarily with a view to it’s technology, then I can see how it is far-fetched. However, I have to say that the degree of control that it shows being used on this society is not unrealistic. I think the key is as you mentioned use of force, I agree that it would be hard to foist this on an unwilling populace and then maintain it. An alternative is to get the people to believe that this level of control is necessary, and that the government is doing it for their own good. Fear is the key. As an example, fear following 9/11 led to the American people allowing the government to control them in unprecedented ways through the NSA/Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Remember that the people in the book 1984 were dealing with a constant state of war. They were already in a state of upheaval. This level of control also probably didn’t come on them all in one night. It would start slowly. Plant the fear, block truthful reporting, sow seeds of division and suspicion, and things start to unravel quickly. Is it possible? I would point to the devolution of Iran, the high control in North Korea. I would have to say yes it’s possible, in fact, to a certain degree in some places it’s already here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Briana says:

      Agreed. I’ve talked to many people who said they were willing to give up privacy, constitutional rights, all kinds of things if doing so would make them “safer.” So the question is really how much the government can persuade people to willingly go along with methods of control. I totally believe cameras in public places. We’re already starting to demand cameras on traffic lights, street corners, police, car dashboards, etc. to make us safer. But will we agree to the government watching us in our own homes? How far can the government get people to agree, and how much must be forced upon them? Adding things gradually could definitely help, but will there then come a breaking point when people stop and think, “Wait, this is too much. How did we get here?”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. luvtoread says:

    Great post! I read 1984 for the first time this year and was blown away at how possible everything was. Small planes looking in to your windows? Yep – now we’ve got drones. The ability to re-write history? Yep – many people now rely solely on digital information, rather than looking up items in paper books. The fear of war? Absolutely. The potential for the government to look into our homes? Yep – smart TVs, computers, phones, etc. And you hit it right on the head when you said “Could the government tap everyone’s phones? Probably. If they wanted. But they don’t” – but how are we so sure that the government doesn’t want to? The US government tried to get Apple to hack into the San Bernadino terrorists phone, which would then have created a way to get into every person’s iphone. I think we have too much trust in our government to do the right thing. After all, it just takes one person to change everything. But then, I tend to lean towards a dislike of big government and more towards conspiracy theories 🙂
    I agree with the other comments that things would start out slowly and feed off of people’s fear. And right now there is so much fear going around.
    I don’t know that I necessarily believe a 1984 society will come about but I do feel that our society is currently leaning in that direction. Definitely more now than say twenty years ago.
    After all, whenever a big event happens where someone does something terrible, all the neighbors say “we had no idea” or they “seemed like a nice person”. How long will it be before people start insisting on knowing who is around them? Maybe not right now, but I do see the potential for this later on down the line, especially if more disasters happen.
    And what is really interesting about 1984 is that people know that things aren’t right but they don’t care. It is far easier (and safer) to go along with everything than to make a stand. They’ve lost their ability to think and feel, and they’ve sacrificed those things in order to feel “safe”.
    I need to read Brave New World! This was a great post.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Ooh, you hit on a great point with digital records. 1984 was stuck with the idea that people would have to rewrite things and burn the old things, which made the process of the rewriting much more transparent. I think you’re right that rewriting facts without people noticing could be easier with computers.

      I know some people in the government who basically said right now they don’t have the capability or the desire to tap everyone’s phones, emails, etc. However, with the way technology is expanding every day, I think it will be completely possible soon to have a computer program that handles all the data and looks for keywords the government is interested in.

      Right. I think there’s a gradual process of people wanting to give up freedoms for safety.. It starts with things like putting cameras on street corners, on car dashboards, on police officers, etc. I also have spoken to a number of people recently who advocated for putting limits on the First Amendment. Their goal is to limit hate speech and threatening speech, but their reasoning was “I’d rather give up some freedom to feel safer.” It’s that attitude that could lead to the government monitoring everything “for our own good.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        I’ve heard the same thing. The amount of data is simply too large for the government to be able to look through everyone’s. While it’s true that perhaps eventually there will be technology that can scan keywords in everyone’s correspondence, you would still need a human to go through all the collected data to verify that the content is dangerous. Think of all the returns you’d get just with a word like “murder” because people are talking about the latest murder mystery they read or how “that test was murder.” I think even then the amount of data would be too large for humans to go through efficiently. I guess you could try to create some sort of cloud that picks up related words to narrow your returns, but still. How many people is the government going to hire to comb through that sort of thing if it’s not going to be an effective way to catch anyone doing something?

        Liked by 1 person

      • luvtoread says:

        And now with all of the “fake news” that is around, we can’t always tell what is true or not! Add in Photoshop, and we can’t even trust a photo anymore either. Computers definitely make the alteration of anything much easier.
        I agree that soon they’ll be entering in keywords that will be flagged if used, if they haven’t started doing that already. It sometimes makes me a bit paranoid about putting all the books I read online, and places I go, people I talk to. What if someone in government thought that what I was reading or discussing was not appropriate?
        Putting limits on the First Amendment? That is so scary. !! And just shows that those people have no idea what it is like to live in a society that limits thought and speech. Not that I really know about that either, other than by reading and my own imagination, but who would decide what exactly was hate speech? Who determines what is threatening? Would any dissenting opinion soon become “hate speech”? That is such a slippery slope. Just because I don’t agree with an opinion does not give me the right to outlaw someone speaking/thinking it. Super scary! I hope I never see that day.

        Like

  5. TeacherofYA says:

    I wrote a paper about this same topic, and it still freaks me out to think of society ever becoming like that. But I think it CAN happen…but we have to be very aware that it can. Especially in order to prevent it. We need checks and balances and term limits. We need democracy (though technically we are a republic but whatev). We need freedom.
    What a wonderful topic!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      That sounds like a really cool paper topic!

      Right. I think it could happen, but I guess I’m not too worried about it happening within my lifetime. If it does happen, it will because people started to acquiesce to or even demand it. I’ve gotten a few papers from my students recently, for instance, advocating for limits to the first Amendment because “I would rather have fewer freedoms and feel safer.” I think it’s those types of attitudes, spread over a large percentage of the population, that would lead to a society like this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TeacherofYA says:

        Wow…people writing about LIMITING the first Amendment? Does it make you cringe?
        I think some people think with Trump it’s going to be like that…which I don’t believe that he could make us into a Big Brother gov’t. Fascism or communism…both scare me.
        So I just go with the flow, read a ton of dystopian lit, like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984, and just hope and pray we never get like that.

        “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!”

        Like

        • Briana says:

          A little bit, yes! But I had to be objective, so the only feedback I went with there was suggesting they engage more with the counterargument and talk about why some people think limiting the First Amendment would be difficult or undesirable.

          I’ve been wrong about Trump before. (Like predicting that there was absolutely no way he would become president…). However, I just don’t see that as part of his agenda. I think Trump puts his foot in his mouth a lot and is very offensive, but I don’t see him with big plans to control the populace. But I guess I’ll have the next four years to find out.

          Like

          • Krysta says:

            This is curious because technically the First Amendment is already limited by the fact that you can’t have “hate speech.” So I’m not sure what other limitations you would place to narrow that, without getting into risky territory. That is, you could create a more specific series of bans to the effect of something like “No one can advocate for a wall anymore” but now you’ve just created a precedent for the other party to make rules like “No one can question climate change anymore” once they gain power.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Briana says:

              Well, not really. There’s some exemptions for “fighting words” and threats, but not just saying things that are hateful. Partially because what’s hateful or offensive is often changing and often subjective.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Krysta says:

              Sure, but the definition of “hate speech” is purposefully nebulous (and thus admittedly fails to be used to effectively silence anyone) exactly because it’s hard to quantify. And if you do quantify it you’ve opened up a huge can of worms about what people are going to start regulating.

              Like

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