The Orwellian Lobotomy

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The seepage of Newspeak into hiring and daily life

“Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”—“Symes”, a state philologist, in Orwell’s 1984

A clean-cut fresh-faced recent graduate abruptly stops gushing about the job you are interviewing him for to reluctantly admit under your questioning that indeed he was previously arrested for looting during a riot. As part of his predictable expression of regret, he repeats what he has already endlessly repeated to shamed parents, other recruiters, puzzled friends, the police and to his former employer: “My friends were egging me on as they shot iPhone video. It just seemed so cool at the moment. I got caught up in it.”

What neither he nor any of them—and perhaps even you–realize is that he has just had a “Newspeak moment” in your office on the heels of and as a reflection of an earlier Newspeak moment he had during the chaos of the riot. What this means is that because of coarse conceptualization, he is unable now and was unable then to make crucial distinctions that would have provided the kind of insight and guidance required to avert that disaster. Even though he may belatedly recognize the concepts and distinctions once they are presented to him, because he would never use them himself, they might as well not exist.

The Menace of Mind Shrivel

Without the active or passive vocabulary to distinguish “fame” from “infamy”, “publicity” from “notoriety”, being “famous” from being “infamous” and being “spontaneous” from being “rash” during the riot, he was susceptible to the temptations of the mob (which he failed to distinguish from a party). Likewise, in only belatedly appreciating the difference and predictable connection between being “caught up” and being “caught”, he wrongly imagines he has offered you some kind of extenuation of his actions, as though being “caught up”, which is somehow cool and in his vocabulary, conceptually or in practice doesn’t correlate with getting caught.

He is another victim of Newspeak.

You—the Source, or the Target of Newspeak?

“Newspeak” (“new”+ “speak”), the shriveled, thought-obstructing, mind-controlling version of English described In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is generally and rightly regarded as an iconic menace—but primarily, as Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair) himself conceived it, as a politically repressive tool and weapon developed and utilized by the totalitarian State. Now, almost thirty years later, the question to ask is to what degree has Orwell’s prediction come true and who is responsible for that?

The possibility that Newspeak might instead or also be a creation of, rather than only a yoke imposed upon, the masses flips the cart and horse, and puts the onus of responsibility and blame on the ordinary citizen as a source, rather than as only the target of that kind of linguistic lobotomy. If this is true, then, as part of the “masses”, you may—willy-nilly—in your day-to-day operations be setting the stage for or raising the curtain on the expansion of Newspeak (as will be illustrated below), as you fail to notice that for every new hi-tech term you learn, there are scores or maybe hundreds of venerable, useful concepts and words that Newspeak-free minds used to know and use that you don’t. Moreover, if other psychologically, morally, politically or socially important concepts you recognize are never used by you, you are functionally operating within a framework of Newspeak.

That possibility allowed—if a massive dumbing-down of the masses could be self-inflicted, with or without State connivance or conspiracy, it is but a short step to consider the further possibility that not only has Newspeak already arrived, but that it is being created by those whom it controls, namely, almost everybody, including you, unless you happen to be among the Illuminati-affiliated, mass-media or pop-culture true controllers.

In the 1984 super-state of Oceania, clear thinking about politics, morality, culture, society and just about everything else is deliberately impeded by the imposition of a totalitarian State-created language, “Newspeak”, supplemented by daze-and-trance inducing, infantile drivel-lyrics of pop-tunes and ditties-of-the-day (much like those of today). This mind-controlling stripped-down, concocted version of English was designed to express far fewer concepts, distinctions, analogies, critiques, logical inferences, examined acronyms, nuances, subtleties and insights than conventional English can.

Citizen evaluation of government policies and social mores was thereby reduced to little more than orchestrated grunts of approval or disapproval, e.g., “doubleplusgood” (which can be usefully compared to our modern epithet “cool”) and “ungood”. Gone and blocked were any understanding of “right”, “prudent”, “expedient”, “effective”,  “generally approved” and differentiation of these from each other and the contrasting concepts “State-sponsored” and “decreed”.

Newspeak Shrink-Wrapped Minds

As the character “Syme”, a state philologist, puts it in 1984,

”After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good‘, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good‘, what need is there for a word like ‘bad‘? ‘Ungood‘ will do just as well—better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘”

If that argument is correct, why have words like “immoral”, “amoral” and “non-moral”, when “unmoral” will suffice to cover them all and condemn someone who has been charged with what would previously have been called a “non-moral offense”, e.g., criticizing the government , but is now  adjudged “unmoral” and no different from immoral? “Doubleplusungood” can replace them all, including “unmoral”. Likewise, who needs a minority racial or ethnic identity when “White” and “Unwhite” or “Black” and “Unblack” are enough? In the heat of the moment and near the flames of a burning police cruiser, it can all seem “doubleplusgood” (i.e., cool), without any regard for or recall of the distinction between morally good and viscerally good. (Notice how “cool!”, just like Orwell’s “doubleplusgood”, never encourages moral reflection or restraint.)

Reducing the number of words in a language is but one Newspeak trick; eliminating the spaces between them is another. For example, “Newspeak” itself is written as one word, presumably to discourage thinking about other possibilities, such as “Old Speak”, and perhaps subversively yearning for it.

“Facebook” as Newspeak

The same obfuscating trick can be observed in what is among the most popular modern recruiting tools:  Facebook. Compare recruiting on Facebook with hypothetical recruiting on “Face Book”. Notice how “Facebook” as a seamless conceptual unit discourages, while “Face Book” encourages imagining a competing alternative, e.g., Place Book (of job openings). In fact “Placebook” exists—and as an explicitly recruiting-focused website.  It is an overseas teacher job-placement site, viz., (The fact that URLs tend to be seamless in this way makes domain registration services pawns or propagators of Newspeak.)

Confirming that one should never judge a Facebook by its marketing cover, at the subliminal level, fusing “face” and “book” in “Facebook” brilliantly obscures the fact that Facebook is neither a book nor a collection of books, while promoting the comforting and addictive illusion that it is equivalent to and a substitute for real books and reading. Moreover, by fusing “face” and “book”, Facebook implants a powerful mental and emotional association between previously rather disparate things, in a kind of Orwellian “doublethink”—the “power to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (1984, Chapter 2),  like “War is Peace” and the idea that the past is what we today say it was. In pre-Newspeak, looking at a face and reading a book were quite disparate; “Facebook” makes them synonymous in a “War is Peace” oxymoronic way.

To see the grip that this contradictory, unconventional juxtaposition of concepts has on the masses, ask any teenager to add one word to this one: “book”. Odds are that the result will be “face”, not “Domesday Book” (described as the oldest public record in English history and “probably the most important statistical document in the history of Europe”), or “paperback book” or even the slightly longer kids’ story “The Jungle Book”. Nice marketing, Facebook; great Newspeak.

20th-Century Newspeak

The switch from “Kentucky Fried Chicken” to “KFC” in 1991 came across as a Newspeak distraction or inhibition of awareness, by concealing the word “fried”  and its negative health associations from consciousness, much as 1984’s “Minitru” blunts any critical thought about and challenges to what it represents: The truth-manufacturing and destroying “Ministry of Truth”. (Note how much easier it would be to sell an unsuspecting vegan on the idea of working for or eating at a franchise called something like “KFC” than at one called something like “Kentucky Fried Chicken”, which since 2007 has been restored as the brand name and, of course, after the company eliminated artery-clogging (Newspeakish) “trans fat” (trans-fatty acids) from its North American recipes.)

An institutionalized repression of expression, Newspeak, as conceived by Orwell, represented a future government artifice and control technique that would effectively replace the need for external, brute-force, boot-force suppression of dissent and debate with psychologically internalized obstruction of it. Although conceived by Orwell decades before 1984, manifestations of Newspeak were evident in that eponymous year.  For example, in 1984, If English had no word for “truce” or “negotiation”, it would have forgivably seemed to everyone that Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s Vietnam War mantra “The only alternative to victory is defeat” indeed enumerated and exhausted all possible Newspeak war policy options—in both the year and one of its forms Orwell had presciently predicted.

However, ancient harbingers of Newspeak can be found in the world’s oldest cultures: For millennia, the Japanese, having had no concept of “privacy”, apparently never demanded, idealized, discussed or otherwise thought about it, until the last century, when, at last, “puraibashi” entered their lexicon.

The Latest Newspeak Blinders and Blunders

Most recently, widespread confusion and silence has resulted from the current apparent inability of some major media news networks to grasp the distinction between pending legislated authorization of indefinite military detention without trial of (non-)citizens and the pending companion legislated requirement of indefinite military detention of non-citizens, again, without trial—two (or maybe four) concepts separated by and possibly separating those detained without trial from a legal abyss. Failing to recognize and correctly articulate the distinction between “authorize” and “require”, most news coverage and analysis of this hotly debated and important issue has, so far, been mere “unnews”, to coin a Newspeaky term.

Can you imagine not grasping the difference between being authorized to hire candidate X and being required to hire him and also discovering that your HR department can’t articulate it to help you comprehend it?

As one of the clearest and perhaps the most engaging analysis of this issue, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart take aired on December 7, 2011 is hard to beat or forget, including for its implicit lampooning of Newspeak when Stewart points out that, in the “War on Terror”, terror can never surrender and end the war (an allusion to the Newspeak technique of stretching and distorting the meaning of “war” by obliterating the distinction between a nation-State, viz., Iraq and a psychological state (small “s”), viz., terror, as conceivable “enemies”.)

Despite the humor-tinged spin of Stewart’s warning, the ominous, very unfunny and spreading Orwellian application of this casual use of “war” blatantly surfaced in a December 21, 2011 CNN interview with  a Louisiana state representative, who is calling for the Louisiana National Guard to be indefinitely deployed in the streets of New Orleans after a 2-year-old child was killed in a drive-by shooting. The justification for the dangerous militarization of civilian policing, Chile style? The crime was, he said, “unacceptable behavior” and because “we are at war”, although with only a “a few select people” who commit such heinous crimes and who are creating “a negative environment”. He added that “when you are at war (even with only a few individuals), you have to bring in the soldiers.” (Even for a “war on drugs”, a “war on terror” or a “war on obesity”?)

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Newspeak

The evidence suggests that if things are changing, the change has not worked against the entrenchment of Newspeak. Conceptual and critical precision are as—or perhaps more—endangered today as—or than—they were in Orwell’s 1984 and Goldwater’s 1984. The difference is that, in 2011, Newspeak-style amputation of communication is, irrespective of any possible government conspiracy to further it, being initiated from below as well as from above.

The dumbing-down of non-fiction discourse, including writing, e.g., the triumph of mass-media news sound bites over deep and sustained commentary; the functional illiteracy of millions; the need for remedial reading and compulsory critical thinking courses; the texting assault on the expression of complete thoughts; the transformation of formerly hardcore-science Scientific American magazine into something like a puffy Reader’s Digest version of itself; distraction by every sort of stimulation that doesn’t require thinking about it; the displacement of thought by celebrity gossip; and the disappearance of leisurely contemplation and reflection are all contributing to the truncation of the amount of time and energy that should be put into thought and communication.

Multicultural Newspeak

Whenever I go for a walk along Vancouver’s sea wall, about half of the overheard conversations are in some language other than English—Russian, Chinese, Korean, Czech, French, Italian, you name it. (Too much of the rest is dumbed-down Valley Girl/Boy moronic English.) It was the same in London, years ago, when I lived there. That diversity is part of the vibrancy and charm of both places.

Similarly, among your colleagues and others who come into your office there are probably those for whom their first language is not English, but who, nonetheless, not only manage, but frequently excel in it. Still, it is not reasonable to expect all of them to have a perfect grasp of every English nuance. That perfect grasp can be observed, but not as a rule.  Cracking a subtly-nuanced or culture-bound joke will often immediately reveal this, e.g., “What happens to worn-out hockey pucks in Canada? Answer: They are iced.”—a delicious paradox, given the ambiguity of “iced”, but one wasted on anyone unfamiliar with its dual meaning.

So, because of the influence of this kind of cross-cultural “No-speak”, Newspeak is gaining another foothold, albeit a totally understandable and innocent one, as subtle distinctions and nuances of shared, but only imperfectly shared, languages are lost. At least “No-speak” has no insidious motivation such as brainwashing/shriveling or the undesirable consequence of reducing contact with foreign, differently-minded cultures, as did Orwell’s politically-motivated and implemented Newspeak.

Nonetheless, the modern and future blending of Nospeak and Newspeak means that the kind of fully expressive, reflective and critical language that used to characterize language is likely to become increasingly rare. This may be inevitable and not only because of Big Brother schemes to dumb us all down, but also because of our own mental laziness and mass-cultural distractions that make deep and precise thought…

…a Big Bother.

Read more in Business Communication

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).