1984, Cancel Culture, and the Big Lie

(Low res) cover of this edition of 1984, published by Dreamscape Media and narrated by Peter Noble

I recently got approved to review an audiobook ARC (advanced readers copy) of 1984, published by Dreamscape Media and narrated by Peter Noble. It was one of those in the moment type requests, and even after I was quickly approved, I began to stress about when I’d actually get to it. Little did I know, I’d finish it within a week. This isn’t intended as a review of this edition (check my Goodreads for that), but I mention it because I want you to understand why I went from feeling regretful on the request to plowing through it. The narration was great, of course, but to be honest, if I didn’t like it, I could have listened to enough to review it and then switched to a narration I did like (I initially listened to, and loved, the Frank Muller rendition). Imagine my surprise when I found myself unable to stop listening. It’s been anywhere from 6 to 12 years since I’ve read it (sometime after high school but before grad school), and boy what a difference a decade makes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it my first read through; it’s a very compelling book in its own right. However, I don’t think I fully appreciated the deeper message within it. That is what prompts this post (that and the group meeting that requires me to write a post). Forgive me if it’s a bit rushed.

Many people, across the political spectrum, love to reference 1984. It is so very quotable, and ironically, it’s easily weaponized to push the very mindset it seeks to fight against. Let’s start by considering the notion of a thought crime.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows

Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

I’m sure there are transphobes who would appeal to “2+2=4” when denying the reality of gender as a spectrum. Except, the notion that gender is as simple as 2+2=4 is itself a rejection of one reality in favor of another. The irony here is the sudden love of science despite the often disinterest in science when it isn’t useful to them. The notion of freedom is easy to appeal to, but it misses the fundamental message of the book. It refuses to look at the reality of their own claims. The “reality of gender” is an assumed truth. It is a basic piece of knowledge, as they see it, that was taught to them from the moment they were born. In being unwilling to challenge that very notion, you are falling into the very way of thinking that exists in 1984. It’s not that gender as a spectrum is necessarily the truth. It’s about challenging the existing power and knowledge structure, using the truth of reality, outside our own minds, to come to the actual truth.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

Then there is the problem of appealing to thoughtcrimes anytime a harmful comment is made. This is often called cancel culture. The entire notion of cancel culture is ridiculous. Celebrities and politicians use the phrase to claim being attacked whenever they’re held accountable. In reality, those who become “canceled” never actually lose their power or money. They always come back to the fold, some not leaving at all. It is, in many ways, being framed as a thoughtcrime to hold any idea that doesn’t fit the norm. This is a flimsy line of logic, not the least of reasons being these are individuals, not the government, calling these people out. It’s also about the fact that it is more than a thought. These are substantial claims and actions being made. Tucker Carlson advocates to his entire audience as series of objectively harmful mindsets, that don’t just create division, it motivates hate (in mind and action). Of course, he is intentional. Maybe there are others likes of JK Rowling who genuinely believes they are in the right. Except, they still spread hateful thoughts. What’s more, they often become weaponized by more intentionally hateful groups. At the end of the day, it’s about more than accountability; it is a way to challenge the existing structure of power that exists within society. The right to exist with counter views has not been challenged.

Poll by Pew research on what cancel culture means, by political leaning.

However, before we get to power, let’s extend the discussion of cancel culture to a broader one that relates to the reframing of how we remember history.

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

When statues are taken down or significant figures of history attacked and reframed, is it as simple as rewriting the past (lets ignore that no one is changing the textbooks—except for those striking them of uncomfortable history, cough cough Texas— and lets ignore that the goal is not to erase them but to stop worshiping them)? It’s easy to pull a quote and claim that we are rewriting history because it makes us uncomfortable or because we want to forget it. Although, the truth is that these are not true representations of the actions being done.

There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.

It is easy to side with Winston in 1984 because we know he knows the truth. We know that Big Brother has, and continues, to rewrite and erase what has happened, but image if you were within this society. Winston himself breaks in the end, but suppose you knew the truth. Suppose in fighting for it, you were cast as the untruth. We live in a country controlled, throughout most of our history, by straight white men. Big brother, in a form, has already been in control. Big brother has already written the books we learn from. Is it rewriting the past to cast doubt on the history that’s been presented to us? Who wins in a world where the US is presented as a racist, sexist, homophobic monster? The minority. We return again to the quest for equality and the breaking of the power structure.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

I hope by this point you can recognize how the Big Lie comes into play here. What is the central purpose of Big Brother? Power. The entirety of the system exists to control and to retain power. This could be applied to any politician—at least it could be asserted, but at the end of the day, the Big Lie presents us with the ultimate recreation of Big Brother. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself; who gives your arguments a fair hearing and simply persists in his lunacy?

This is the very circumstance we find ourselves in today. Perhaps you are a proponent of the Big Lie. Maybe in your eyes, I am the lunatic and you exist free of Big Brother.

For the first time, he perceived that if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.

Donald Trump need not accept his own lie, because he has no interest in the truth. He never has. He has only ever concerned himself with power. However, his followers must believe the Big Lie if they are to exist within his reality.

It doesn’t matter how many courts (of varying political leanings) discount the unsubstantiated claims. It doesn’t matter what evidence exists or fails to exist. The message is the truth.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. 

When the Party/Big Brother/Trump becomes the basis of truth, you lose any interest in other ways of reaching the truth. Then the truth becomes whatever he asserts is the case. If he contradicts himself (STOP THE COUNT! COUNT THE VOTES), it somehow isn’t an issue.

I know I didn’t have a good overarching story for this post. It was more that I had a series of thoughts that I wanted to explore because 1984 is as relevant today as it always has been, but it’s important to think about it in the ways it’s being embodied but also misapplied. Otherwise, to be Orwellian loses its significance.

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