Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the meaning of ‘Orwellian’

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been so absorbed into our culture that many people use words invented by Orwell without even realising where they come from. ‘Big Brother’, ‘Newspeak’, ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Room 101’ were all first typed by Orwell in his final book, published in 1949.

You’ve probably noticed how the phrase ‘Orwellian’ crops up all the time in everyday conversation, and even more so in the news media. It can refer to all kinds of things, but most often it refers to the feeling that the government is intruding on our affairs.

Here’s an example: a headline from the Daily Telegraph last year:

EU funding ‘Orwellian’ artificial intelligence plan to monitor public for “abnormal behaviour”

The headline writer has used the word ‘Orwellian’ to show they believe that this kind of moitoring of the public is a bad idea. Whenever we see ‘Orwellian’ written down it’s supposed to act like a dog whistle to bring out our worst fears about what the government, or even worse, the European Union, is up to.

It’s particularly hard to find an article about CCTV cameras that doesn’t use this word, or imply that we are heading into the kind of ‘surveillance state’ that Orwell predicted might one day cover the whole of Europe and North America.

Take a look at this article from the BBC, published four years ago, when fears about the number of CCTV cameras in Britain were particularly high.

The BBC is funded by money from tax so it’s usually supposed to avoid this kind of scaremongering, which most of us associate with right wing newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. But they’re only human, and they want people to visit their website. Articles that paint an ‘Orwellian’ picture of the future are popular with the public.

Last year the BBC did some more research and found out that there are actually about one million fewer CCTV cameras in Britain than was previously thought. But, they said, there’s still many more of them than in other countries.

The borough of Wandsworth, which includes Stockwell and Battersea, has more CCTV cameras than any other London borough. “Sounds Orwellian”, we may start to think. But the actual statistics? There are fewer than four cameras per 1,000 people in Wandsworth. In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, there are at least 1,000 cameras per 1,000 people, which is one each. That’s because every person has their own personal ‘telescreen’ in their living room, which broadcasts propaganda to them, and simultaneously shows the government exactly what they’re doing.

So statistically we’re not yet in a state which resembles Nineteen Eighty-Four that much. That’s not to say the amount of surveillance of the public that goes on is in our interests. Is it even proven that CCTV cameras help to stop crime? The police often obtain footage of crimes, even from several different angles, and still can’t identify the muggers. This isn’t always the case but it should make us question the government narrative that CCTV is worth the amount of public money spent on it.

A further question is whether our narrow use of the term ‘Orwellian’ does justice to George Orwell’s work. Orwell wrote hundreds of essay on politics and society; he wrote books on various topics including his experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma, as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, and of course his famous allegorical novel Animal Farm.

Are these not also examples of ‘Orwellian’ literature? Should we only use the name of one of the 20th Century’s most important writers when we’re talking about government surveillance, spies and cameras in lifts?

As this year’s election campaign gathers pace, expect to hear the Conservatives talking about how Labour have turned Britain into an ‘Orwellian state’ with their ‘excessive centralization of power’, which is code for ‘bringing in laws we don’t like’, such as banning fox hunting and trying to stop discrimination against ethnic minorities and Gay people.

What would George Orwell make of this kidnapping of his ideas?

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