Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Hate Speech

I’ve just finished George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, a dystopian vision of a totalitarian society. There are many connections that could be developed between Orwell’s portrayal and contemporary politics. I was struck however by the central role the language “Newspeak” plays in the story. We’re all familiar with the deceptive reversals of meanings employed by oppressive regimes, as in the democracy of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. However, more insidious than straightforward deception is the subversion of thought itself.

In his fictional appendix on the principles of Newspeak, Orwell explains:

The Purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.

This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings

We might think of some of the invented words that support the new industry of exposing hate crimes, such as Homophobia, Islamophobia, and more recently Transphobia. These are words designed to redefine those that hold non-progressive views (as currently understood) as vile and deranged. To be phobic is to be beyond rational discourse and very possibly criminal. On religious, moral, philosophical or even scientific grounds one might wish to differ from the progressive mainstream, but even to suggest this is to utter a species of blasphemy. The purpose of the new language is to make non-orthodox views immoral, absurd and ultimately inexpressible.

The notion of “hate speech” is a clear example of the attempt to subvert both language, and more insidiously, thought itself. The classical understanding of free speech has been to enshrine the right of the individual to speak their mind except when an incitement to violence or to lead people into harm, hence John Stuart Mill’s example of shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. However, violence has been redefined to mean criticism of someone’s identity (the caveat being that it must be a victim identity). Aggression has been redefined to mean any action consciously or unconsciously carried out that implies inferiority of power – as in microaggressions. And harm has been redefined to mean offence against someone’s feelings.

It is not a large step from outlawing speech to outlawing thought, for without words and without articulation there is no thought. Not only is free speech destroyed, not only do we lose the massive benefit of the battle between ideas in which bad ideas are discarded, but a free pass is given to vile behaviour as long as it is done in the name of “correct” values. There is clearly vile behaviour at all extremes, Charlottesville being a recent example. This deserves exposure, ridicule, and condemnation from wherever it comes. However, when vile behaviour has as its object “fascism”, or “the far right”, is is somehow exempted from the true meaning of hate.

When hate no longer means the outpouring of visceral and potentially violent loathing of others, and means instead the thinking of blasphemous thoughts then we are in serious trouble.

 

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