The Trumpian phrase “alternative fact” — a synonym for a lie — must be considered an apt addition to the vocabulary of obfuscation that Orwell called “newspeak.”
“The great enemy of clear language,” Orwell wrote before he authored 1984, “is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
A cuttlefish squirting out ink — well, that summed up Donald Trump’s early weeks in the Oval Office.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, cannot discover a grain of truth in Oceania because the faceless officials who rule the country have abolished truth. In place of truth they have substituted bureaucracies — the Ministry of Truth, Peace, and Plenty — and slogans — War is peace! Freedom is slavery! etc. The slogans preclude analysis.
The ultimate goal of Big Brother in Oceania is not just to suppress truth but to make individual thought impossible.
“Thoughtcrime” is punished in Oceania but the goal is to abolish thoughtcrime before it can even occur. No need to send documents down the “memory hole” if thought itself can be prevented.
How different is life today? If you were to cast your eye over any official pronouncement of the Government of Canada or the Province of Ontario, you will see talk of “maximizing inputs” or “consulting stakeholders,” of “optimizing discussions” or “playing out scenarios.” You will find prevarication, jargon, mumbo-jumbo and claptrap, but you will search in vain to find that one word of truth that Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said could outweigh the world.
Ideology demands of language two things: subterfuge and a lifeless imitative style. The half-century long abortion debate in Canada illustrates both.
I once noticed at the University Community Centre at Western University a poster for Planned Parenthood. The slogan on the poster read: “Abortion — A Positive Approach to Inconvenient Pregnancy.”
Similarly, I read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer with the headline: Abortion: The Dreaded Complication. The “dreaded complication” turned out to be those rare late-term abortions when a baby actually survives the procedure and emerges from the womb alive.
Examples of “alternative facts” from our Canadian government are as numerous as stars in the night sky, particularly emanations from our human rights commissions, those organizations which mandate the very racial and sex discrimination they were created to eradicate.
Actually, “alternative facts” can be seen as the triumph of postmodernism, which is our prevailing Canadian ideology, one that denies even the possibility of truth. In Orwell’s Oceania 2+2=5. In postmodernist Canada, who can deny it? If one may claim, in the teeth of biology and anatomy, to be whatever gender takes one’s fancy, then “alternative facts” have indeed prevailed.
For three decades after its publication in 1949 scholars debated the significance of the title of Orwell’s book. Was he prophesying some cataclysm that would happen in the year 1984 or was the title generic? Quite by accident, I discovered the answer.
In 1978 I was on sabbatical, living in Robertsbridge in Sussex, in the home of British author and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was writing his biography. Muggeridge had been a friend of Eric Blair (aka George Orwell). One day I came across a file folder stuffed with letters between the two men.
On Dec. 4, 1948 Orwell wrote to Muggeridge from the remote Hebridean Island of Jura congratulating Muggeridge on his recently published novel Affairs of the Heart. Orwell explained that he too had just completed a novel but was stumped for a title. He had considered and rejected several possibilities and now, he thought, he might just transpose the last digits of the year — hence 1984 for 1948 and leave it at that.
Let me quote from the actual letter: “I am not pleased with it but I think it is a good story. It is a fantasy, really, a story about the future (after the atomic wars) written in the form of a novel.”
So much for prophesy — the title was pure serendipity. But serendipity or not, the warnings in 1984 are no less prescient, particularly in this era of officially sanctioned “alternative facts.”
(Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)