Have you ever read George Orwell’s 1984? It’s the story of a young go-getter politician, Winston Smith, whose ties to a private company are severed after he legitimizes the discrediting of democratic processes and expresses solidarity with the mob that seeks to cement the power of a would-be autocrat.
Except, no. Not really. Not at all.
In reality, 1984 is the story of a low-level government employee (the true Winston Smith), who secretly denies the social mandates of the totalitarian regime he services. Winston’s efforts to join a legendary underground revolutionary force are complicated by the nigh-omnipresent use of surveillance technology, and the difficult interpersonal exchanges Winston must navigate with a populace that is both systemically re-educated (via a “stripped-down” version of English called newspeak) and culturally incensed against unseen, foreign enemies thanks to the rhetoric of the government and its deified figurehead “Big Brother.”
While fiction, 1984 speaks to our reality. Orwell wrote the book as a warning, demonstrating how totalitarianism could come to post-war democracies, and what form the system could take in its execution. And yes, quite unfortunately, there are some parallels that can be drawn between our modern society and this imaginary one first detailed in 1949.
However, and let me be clear about this: Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel the publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) book, is ABSOLUTELY NOT Orwellian, in spite of his claims otherwise, and his use of the word in his defense is just one point in a troubling pattern among conservative officials who appropriate the term and others like it, in the process misrepresenting their true definitions, in order to retaliate against their critics.
I’ll try to give Senator Hawley the benefit of the doubt and assume that his response to the publisher was not a deliberate attempt to confuse and agitate his base, but a simple misunderstanding of Orwell’s work. You see, Senator, in an Orwellian society, the means of publishing information would be totally under the purview of the government, and any censorship would be used as a means to keep the populace from conceptualizing the world outside of the state-approved model.
Your situation, however, was not the decision of a totalitarian regime. It was a choice of a private company, who, disgusted with your actions on 1/6/2021, decided that it was in the best interest of its customers to provide neither platform nor profit to you, a democratic saboteur and a proponent of the D.C. rioters. The cancellation of your book, Senator, was a natural consequence of capitalism.
Unfortunately, Hawley’s misuse of “Orwellian” and misrepresentation of the facts is not exactly out of the norm for those of his ilk. Bigots, undoubtedly right-of-center, continue to equate the use of preferred pronouns to a modern-day newspeak. As an avid linguist, this particular muddying-of-terms infuriates me to no end.
Newspeak is a fantastic invention of the human imagination, and the fact that its tenets are so clearly codified in 1984 but are still so widely misconstrued is a terrible happening of modern discourse. Newspeak is a dialect of English constructed by Big Brother’s Party, with a comparatively insufficient vocabulary. It is the Party’s goal to not only deliver information to the masses via Newspeak, but to the educate them in the language as well, to have it be the only way they know how to speak. This is all part of the Party’s theory that if a population can only express itself outwardly in a limited number of ways, then they will only be able conceptualize the world inwardly in a limited number of ways, as well. It is the final step of totalitarianism: a society that can, through the use of surveillance, influence your actions, may, through the use of newspeak, influence your thoughts.
The use of preferred pronouns is certainly in no way Orwellian. Rather than limiting our thoughts and picture of the world, it instead expands and reconceptualizes it. A transgender woman preferring to be referred to as “she,” in spite of whatever anatomy they were born with, does not delete from our history the traditional stereotype of womanhood, but expands upon it. It is in fact, more Orwellian to so strictly define gender as a binary, than as a wide-ranging spectrum. I have low expectations, but I hope that some day more among the right-wing can come to agree with this thesis.
The misappropriation does not stop with literary terms, however. It has even affected neologisms. The most famous and long-standing of which is Donald Trump’s use of “fake news” against his critics in the mainstream media. In spite of his claims otherwise, the President was not the one to coin the term, and in fact it was first used to describe some of the conspiracist rumor-mills that may have given Trump the leg-up on Clinton in 2016.
This confusion of clearly-defined terms is a problem for the stability of democracy. Yes, I am sure you can find any number of “tanky” Twitter profiles that speak with similar hyperbolic hysteria, but the fact that such switcheroos are coming out of the mouths of high officials (like Hawley and Trump), is deeply troubling. One wonders if we have seen this before, if our world history might provide us an example of the dangers of this “no I’m not, you are” attitude, and if it could be the precursor to a greater social ill…