Orwellian Concepts of "Newspeak" and "Doublethink" Alive and Well in 2017

Feb 8, 2017

In recent weeks, sales of the novel 1984 by George Orwell, first published in 1949, have soared. It climbed to the top of the amazon.com best seller list, and bookstores report that copies are flying off the shelves.

Since so many people are reading or re-reading it right now, on this "book club" edition of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe hosts a conversation about what makes this classic relevant in 2017. 

She starts the hour talking with Andrew Simmons, an English teacher who transforms his classroom into the world of 1984 and Big Brother every October.

"I want to get to the point where they know what this book is about, and they are being encouraged to look to current events and look to more recent history," he says, "and to basically constantly ask themselves: Is this some strange prediction that never came through? Is this a warning that people haven’t really heeded? Do we live in a society that, on certain mornings when we wake up, feels a little bit like the one the book presents to us?"

The three slogans of the English Socialism Party, Ingsoc, in 1984.
Credit Charity Nebbe

Nebbe also talks with Glenn Penny, a University of Iowa history professor, who is teaching 1984 in one of his classes this semester.

"It was really difficult for me to not teach this book because sitting through the election cycle, I’m not sure how many people didn’t think of it," Penny says. "It was so obvious that you had an effort to re-write history as discussions were taking place.”

For Michael Bugeja, director and professor of Iowa State University's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, his concern lies with seeing the Orwellian ideas of "doublethink" and "Newspeak" in today's society.

"Doublethink is the ability, according to Orwell in the book, to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. That’s what’s going on in many corners of the media right now," Bugeja says. "We do make a distinction at the Greenlee School between media, which is everything - social networks, newspapers, television - and journalism, which is the practice of disseminating, to audience, fact and analysis. And 1984 does speak quite eloquently about this."

Newspeak is the language of the regime in 1984. It consists of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, a linguistic design meant to limit the freedom of thought and self-expression.

"I’m seeing a lot of Newspeak in the texting that goes on, and in the lack of reading," says Bugeja. "Nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year, and the number of non-book readers has nearly tripled since 1978...So what we’re losing by not reading of course is the ability to think critically."

Continue the discussion and tweet us @IPRTalk: What do you think was Orwell's message? Has it been learned?