It was supposed to be a routine briefing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The presenter cautioned the attending policy analysts about using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” when crafting upcoming budget documents.
Depending on whom you ask, this was either a Trump administration attempt at censorship or the CDC’s pre-emptive self-censoring of words that might drive away Republican support of the 2018 budget. Outright censorship or self-censorship, the result is the same.
When the story went viral last week, I wasn’t surprised. Americans seem particularly sensitive to infringements on freedom of speech. Except, of course, when they disagree with what is being said. Then it becomes “fake news.” Then the reaction becomes Orwellian.
As an English teacher, I’ve taught George Orwell’s “1984” dozens of times. I keep the novel in my classroom and often reference the appendix, the Principles of Newspeak, when my students discuss linguistic relativity and the extent to which language determines how we think and see the world.
That question is central to the book. Winston Smith works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth systematically altering the official version of news stories to fit the narrative of the party in power. Occasionally he fabricates reality with absolutely no basis in facts – creating a heroic soldier whose sacrifice is crafted to improve the morale of the oppressed people of Oceania, for example.
Winston’s job gives him a perspective his fellow citizens lack – the recognition that what they believe is often internally contradictory and illogical, that for all intents and purposes, objective truth does not exist. This “doublethink” isn’t a fictional construct so much as Orwell’s perceptive analysis of our ability to fool ourselves. Confirmation bias trips us up even when we want the truth. Our emotions muddy the waters further. Try engaging in a friendly debate with people who are emotionally invested in a topic. The stronger their feelings, the less able they are to be rational, and the more insistent they are that they alone have the truth.
Sometimes, however, the effort to control our understanding of reality is deliberate and imposed through censorship.
In “1984,” this is best illustrated by a conversation Winston has with Syme, a Ministry co-worker tasked with banning words from the forthcoming edition of the dictionary.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
For Syme – for those who support censorship – the ends justify the means. Walking in ideological lockstep guarantees totalitarian control. In this context the Party’s three slogans make sense: War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.
By the end of the novel, Winston agrees. He’s lost his moral compass and his ability to sort truth from fiction. So has everyone else in his world. It’s a bleak warning about how – to borrow a phrase – democracy dies in darkness.
In this season of darkness, we don’t have to do likewise. We know too well our human capacity to lie to ourselves and others, our swiftness to vilify the Other, our willingness to be cruel or indifferent to the suffering of those we choose not to see. We can do better. It starts by being self-aware and seeking the truth, no matter where that takes us.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.