Archive for January 4th, 2011

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. –  George Orwell, 1984

When George Orwell wrote his brilliant dystopian novel in 1948, he popularized and named a number of concepts which were already well-established in a primitive form in the three-decade-old Soviet Union, and which he had the foresight to recognize would eventually become part of the established practice of every government.  He was not attempting to predict that the world he described would actually exist in 36 years; in fact, the novel’s narrator isn’t even sure the year is 1984, only that the government says it is.  Orwell chose the year 1984 by simply reversing the last two digits of the year in which the novel was written; he wanted a time not too far into the future so as to point out that the danger was imminent.  This fact is widely known by everyone who paid attention in high-school English class, yet when the year 1984 actually arrived we had to endure countless television commentators saying that Orwell’s “prediction” hadn’t come true.  Unfortunately, they were lying; aside from the fact that it was never intended to be a “prediction” in the first place (which they knew very well), surely any decent reporter realized that the nightmare of the fictional 1984 was alive and well, albeit in a more subtle form.  The practices used in the novel, mixed in most Western countries with elements from Huxley’s Brave New World, were common all over the globe by the real year 1984, and have only become more so in the intervening quarter-century.  Those reporters’ foolish statements could at that time have been inspired by childlike optimism or “whistling in the dark”, but the only way in which a well-informed reporter could honestly issue such a statement today is by the use of doublethink.

In 1984, one of the ways in which the Party controlled thought was by the use of Newspeak, a politicized version of English in which terms for things the government didn’t want people thinking about were replaced by approved terms, often neutered so they were unable to evoke strong emotions.  For example, “bad” and similar words had been removed from the language so as to make criticism of anything difficult; the approved word was “ungood”.  So the strongest criticism of the government (or anything else) it was possible to formulate even in the privacy of one’s thoughts was “doubleplusungood”, which lacks the impact of even such a simple word as “terrible”.  Now obviously, Western governments have not yet seized control of all media, but commercial television and print outlets have for at least the past 27 years obediently used nearly every “Newspeak” term handed down by government, business or special-interest groups, and most of those terms find their way into general use within months of their media adoption no matter how cumbersome, ugly or inaccurate they may be.

As Orwell pointed out, such words tends to change the thinking of the ones who use them; I’ve already discussed “homophobia”, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen people using “African-American” to mean “Negro” even when talking about black people in countries outside of the Americas!  Words have the power to change thoughts, which is exactly what the peddlers of euphemisms or politicized neologisms want.  One such construction is “prostituted women”, the term neofeminists prefer for “whores”.  It is impossible to use such a term regularly without its insidious poison entering one’s cognition; “prostituted women” automatically implies that prostitution is something that is done to women rather than something we choose to do ourselves.  To use the term is to state that women are the passive, helpless victims of men, and as such it is a glaring example of the doublethink which permeates neofeminism.  On the one hand, neofeminists state that women are just as competent as men, yet insist that women need special legal protections.  They observe that women are rational adults who can control our own destinies, yet lobby for paternalistic “mandatory prosecution” laws because they claim women aren’t competent to decide for ourselves whether to press charges against abusive men.  They say that women should have control over our own bodies, unless of course we choose to use those bodies for sex work.  They recognize that women can think for ourselves, then demand we adhere to neofeminist groupthink or be labeled “traitors”.  Many of them openly despise men and consider their characteristic behaviors a pathological deviation from female norms, yet they promote all-consuming male-style careers for women and many even adopt masculine modes of dress and grooming.  The heterosexual wing of neofeminism bitches about male sexual behaviors, yet encourages women to act in exactly the same way.  And so on, and so on, and so on, ad absurdum.

Neofeminists are the absolute champions of doublethink, but the strongest challenger would have to be the group Orwell first used the term about, namely bureaucrats.  A perfect example would be US government officials who criticize China and other oppressive regimes for censoring the internet, yet vote for schemes which would allow them to do the same thing; one of the senators who voted to allow internet censorship later wrote this article on Huffington Post.  And I don’t need to remind you what these same champions of free speech are saying about Julian Assange.

But doublethink isn’t restricted to federal bureaucrats; state and local ones are very good at it as well.  Though most reasonable people who support the decriminalization of one consensual activity (such as marijuana use) tend to also support the decriminalization of others (such as prostitution), politicians are not reasonable and can easily rationalize the denunciation of one form of prohibition while aggressively enforcing prohibition of the other.  The city of Oakland, California is one example; while it tolerates medical marijuana dispensaries and is considering a plan to license four huge indoor marijuana farms in flagrant violation of both federal and state law, it has also recently decided to attack streetwalkers by suing the hotels which they use for their dates:

Oakland City Attorney John Russo announced a new strategy in the city’s struggle to halt the sex trade Wednesday: his office is suing three hotels he called “hubs of prostitution”…The city lawsuits seek up to $25,000 in civil penalties from the owners of the three hotels, and may also seek to shut the businesses down for up to a year. The suits are based on a 1914 state law that allows authorities to seek damages from the owners of buildings where prostitution takes place. “The owners of these hotels cannot turn a blind eye to what’s going on in their rooms,” Russo told reporters during a press conference.

Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, the state of Nevada does it the other way around; while it was the first American state to legalize gambling and one form of prostitution, and has very liberal liquor laws, it has rejected five marijuana legalization referendums and aggressively persecutes marijuana dispensaries.  Do you think if we put Oakland politicians and Nevada politicians into a room together and forced them to argue it out, their heads would explode?  Only someone skilled at doublethink could possibly believe such laws have any basis in reality.

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