George Orwell’s 1984, Part 2: Crash Course Literature #402


In which John Green continues discussing George Orwell’s 1984. Today we’re talking about what the novel 1984 has to say about what some have called today’s surveillance society. We’ll also look at the idea that language can be used as a means to control people’s thoughts. Can something like Newspeak prevent a person from having certain thoughts? I wish I had the words to express how I feel about that. Luckily, John does have the words.


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course literature, and today we’re going back to
00:03
the future–that is now past–to George Orwell’s 1984, which imagines a terrifying
00:08
world in which every human activity is recorded and monitored.
00:12
How unpleasant would that be, he said staring into a camera lens.
00:16
So, as mentioned in our previous episode, the Newspeak language created in the book
00:21
was intended “to make speech […] as nearly as possible independent of consciousness”
00:26
(319).
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In an episode of Crash Course Psychology, my brother, Hank, defined “consciousness”
00:29
as “our awareness of ourselves and our environment.”
00:33
I would add that consciousness also explains our ability to experience life and to feel
00:38
emotions.
00:39
So can the structure of a language actually be “independent of human consciousness.”?
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Well, today, we’ll explore whether language is imposed on us from the outside or whether
00:48
it’s an innate feature of humanity.
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I’m also gonna talk about how this novel was perceived, when it was published, in the
00:54
actual 1984, and how people think about it today.
00:57
And we’ll go ahead and make some connections between Orwell’s novel and our current society’s
01:02
really confusing relationship with truth and surveillance.
01:05
Yeah, we can still criticize surveillance society.
01:08
that’s not a thoughtcrime.
01:13
Yet..
01:14
INTRO In 1984, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith,
01:21
works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth (in Newspeak, known as “Minitrue”).
01:26
He adjusts financial and weather forecasts so that “Big Brother’s” predictions
01:29
are always retroactively correct.
01:32
He also removes references to “unpersons,” or “vaporised” political dissidents.
01:37
And he rewrites history so that Oceania appears always to have been at war with EastAsia.
01:42
Or with Eurasia.
01:43
It changes, depending on shifting allegiances.
01:46
The “central tenet” of Ingsoc (the version of English Socialism practiced in Oceania)
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is that the past is “mutable,” that it has “no objective existence,” and it exists
01:55
only in “written records and in human memories.”
01:58
Orwell writes: The past is whatever the records and the memories
02:01
agree upon.
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And since the Party is in full control of all records and in equally full control of
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the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to
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make it” (219).
02:13
So, Winston mainly writes in Newspeak–a version of English with grammar and vocabulary designed
02:17
to “narrow the range of thought.”
02:19
The idea is that, without the language to express dissent, political crimes, in thought
02:24
or deed, will become impossible.
02:26
But quickly, before we get to the chicken and egg problem of language and thought, though,
02:29
I want to pause to ask you to think about this novel’s relationship to memory.
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Now, we know from neuroscience that each time a memory is accessed, you’re remembering
02:37
it anew–there’s no, like, spot in your brain containing a memory; it is formed each
02:42
time you have it.
02:43
And that means that your memories are shaped by your now–and that at least to some extent,
02:48
the Party is right when it says that telling people what they remember does change their
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memories.
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So, the Party is manipulating a real, structural feature of the human brain–as we learned
02:58
in our discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “What matters
03:02
in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
03:07
OK, so with that noted, let’s turn to thought: Many experts have explored to what extent
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our ability to think is dependent on language.
03:15
In the late 1920s, the ethno-linguist Edward Sapir began talking in academic circles about
03:20
his theory that the structure of the language a person uses determines how they perceive
03:25
and categorize experience.
03:27
When his student, Benjamin Whorf, published his writings in the 1950s, this theory became
03:30
known as “the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.”
03:33
Then, in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky questioned the premise of this theory, arguing that humans
03:38
are born with an innate knowledge of grammar that forms the basis for language acquisition.
03:43
And in 1994, Steven Pinker argued that language is a basic instinct, and that the ability
03:48
to understand, manipulate, and add to it based on one’s own experiences is an expression
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of one’s humanity.
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In fact, he wrote a book called The Language Instinct.
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But before any of these theories were published, Orwell was also thinking about the relationship
04:01
between instinct and language.
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Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
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The word “instinct” appears 31 times in 1984.
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Winston is a creature of instinct, and his strongest instinct is to survive: “To hang
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on from day to day and from week to week, spinning out a present that had no future,
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seemed an unconquerable instinct, just as one’s lungs will always draw the next breath
04:23
so long as there is air available” (emphasis added, 155).
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Winston understands that his society is inhumane: “It MIGHT be true that the average human
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being was better off now than he had been before the Revolution.
04:34
The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive
04:41
feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they
04:45
must have been different” (emphasis added, 76).
04:47
So to Orwell there are human instincts toward generosity and survival and liberty, but Orwell
04:52
is also aware how dangerous human instincts can be, particularly when manipulated by a
04:57
totalitarian state.
04:58
For example, the Party transforms an innate fear of death into mob violence:
05:02
“For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed
05:07
in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct
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and using it as a driving force?”
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(emphasis added, 136).
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It also transforms the survival instinct into a form of self-repression: “Crimestop”
05:19
is the ability to cut off one’s ideas, “…as though by instinct, at the threshold of any
05:25
dangerous thought” (217).
05:26
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
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But of course, those thoughts are only dangerous because the government might kill you for
05:30
having them.
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But — and I think this is critical — writing in Newspeak and participating in Party rallies
05:35
alone does not alter Winston’s consciousness, and it doesn’t seem to change his instincts
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— he’s still able to love Julia, and in little ways to live his “ownlife” life.
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But then, eventually, Winston does betray his girlfriend, Julia, and he comes to believe
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that he “should” repress his thoughts.
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So ultimately, he loses his sense of self.
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But not, I would argue, entirely because of Newspeak.
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Mostly because of torture.
06:01
In the end his consciousness can’t survive being threatened with having his head put
06:05
in a cage with hungry rats.
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It is then that Winston breaks down and wishes that Julia receive this punishment in his
06:13
place.
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And by betraying Julia, he loses his ability to love.
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He loses faith in his own humanity.
06:18
And after Winston is psychologically broken, he starts to think in Newspeak.
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Consider his stream of (non-) conscious narrative: “The mind should develop a blind spot whenever
06:29
a dangerous thought presented itself.
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The process should be automatic, instinctive.
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CRIMESTOP, they called it in Newspeak” (emphasis added, 288).
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So initial use of Newspeak might be part of Winston’s journey toward the lack of consciousness,
06:41
but it’s the physical and psychological torture that really take him there.
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And with that in mind, we can turn to the question of whether words actually matter.
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I mean, can ‘good’ language or ‘good’ books enhance the human experience?
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I believe so.
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And I think Orwell must have believed so, too, or else he wouldn’t have written 1984.
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And as we talked about in the last video, we know that free expression survives within
07:02
the logic of the novel, because the appendix is written in Standard English
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It also refers to the totalitarian government in the past tense.
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So we know that humanity eventually triumphs over oppression and oppressive language!
07:15
Free thought and free speech endure!
07:17
Great, but Orwell doesn’t tell us how those victories were won.
07:21
One minute, Winston is in love with Big Brother, the next minute, Appendix in Standard English.
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But that hasn’t stopped readers from trying to use 1984 to diagnose (and solve) problems
07:30
unique to their times.
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Like, when 1984 was first published, Time Magazine claimed that “any reader in 1949
07:36
can uneasily see his own shattered features in Winston Smith, can scent in the world of
07:42
1984 a stench that is already familiar.”
07:45
Other early reviewers at the time read 1984 as an attack on British Socialism.
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In a letter to a friend, Orwell explained that the novel:
07:51
“…is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labor Party (of which I
07:56
am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and
08:01
which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism.”
08:05
In the years after the book was published, readers began associating Orwell’s name
08:09
with the forms of oppression that he critiqued.
08:11
Surveillance?
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“Quite Orwellian!”
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Propaganda?
08:14
“Also Orwellian.”
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But actually anti-Orwellian!
08:17
In 1983, a Time Magazine journalist tried to reappropriate the term “Orwellian”
08:21
to make it signify, “the spirit that fights the worst tendencies in politics and society
08:26
by using a fundamental sense of decency.”
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Of course, that was a failure.
08:30
If you Google “Orwellian,” you’ll find a long list of ways it has been applied to
08:33
various misuses of government power.
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Poor Orwell.
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Not since Dr. Frankenstein has someone so often been inappropriately alluded to.
08:41
And then of course there is the question of our today, and whether it resembles the Oceania
08:46
of 1984.
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In terms of politics, neither the U.S. nor the U.K. look much like Oceania.
08:52
Whatever you think of our elected officials, they are just that.
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Elected.
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In fact, a higher percentage of people on Earth today live in democracies than did in
09:00
1949, or for that matter 1984.
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So it’s actually been a pretty good seven decades for democracy, but, there are some
09:06
similarities between contemporary life and the future that Orwell imagined:
09:10
For instance our time has some serious issues with the dissemination of objective fact.
09:15
There’s a good reason that Stephen Colbert’s word “truthiness,” meaning “a truth
09:19
that wouldn’t stand to be held back by fact” was chosen by the American Dialect Society
09:24
as the word of the year in 2005.
09:26
Propaganda, both subtle and overt, continue to distort social and political discourse
09:30
around the world.
09:31
And then there’s the issue of surveillance… in Oceania, the government places microphones
09:35
and telescreens in public spaces and private homes.
09:38
And the telescreen is an addictive content provider–broadcasting news, weather reports,
09:44
and interactive exercise videos.
09:45
It detects sounds above a whisper and movement within its field of vision.
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In Winston’s apartment, it can be dimmed, but not turned off completely.
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Creepier still: there was, “…no way of knowing whether you were being watched at
09:57
any given moment” (3).
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Today, we, too, have audio and video surveillance in shops, and airports, and public parts of
10:03
big cities, and also in our homes–alexa, can you make sure not to spy on me?
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{[[Alexa, off-screen]] I’m sorry, John.
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I’m afraid I can’t do that.}
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I have to say, I don’t find that answer terribly comforting.
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And this loss of privacy is the trade-off that we make for increased security and convenience.
10:09
But also, think about how much of your ownlife and consciousness also exists out there in
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the personal information you willingly post online.
10:18
We have Snapchat, and Instagram, and Twitter, and Pinterest, and Tumblr, and WhatsApp, and
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LinkedIn, and YouTube, and I think we still have Google Plus.
10:24
And if you’re waiting for me to denounce social media, I’m not gonna.
10:27
These are amazing ways to broadcast pictures of yourself being cool and to publish your
10:29
thoughts from the sublime to the ridiculous.
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We indicate our preferences by liking, swiping, reposting, and commenting.
10:35
We tag all the wonderful places that we visit and show everyone what we ate while we were
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there.
10:41
Social media is fun!
10:42
It’s awesome!
10:43
I’m in favor of it.
10:44
But have you read the privacy policy of each service you use?
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There’s no question that something is lost when you choose to make any part of your ownlife
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public.
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Winston can’t turn off his telescreen.
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Many of us choose not to turn ours off , exposing a lot of our ownlives to surveillance, and
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I believe that does ultimately shape our lives.
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It’s certainly not a 1984-level control of the private self–but it is worth considering.
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In our era, for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, Big Brother is not a
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totalitarian government, able to alter the consciousness of its citizens through various
11:18
forms of torture.
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Instead, Big Brother is each of us.
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We are watching each other–in the best ways, and the worst ways.
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Does this distract us from our physical bodies, our animal desires, our bonds with real life
11:30
family and friends, our impulses to help others (you know… that business of being conscious
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and human)?
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Or does it ultimately enhance our humanity?
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I don’t know.
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But I don’t think time spent considering those questions is wasted.
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And that’s Orwell’s true genius: The questions that he asked in 1949 about a hypothetical
11:47
1984: they’re timeless.
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What is the nature of humanity?
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Which social orders best allow humanity to flourish?
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Which oppress it nearly beyond recognition?
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And what is the role of language and literature in liberating the oppressed?
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Keep asking those important questions and you will be “Orwellian” in the most heroic
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sense of the word.
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Thanks for watching.
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I’ll see you next time.


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