By Joseph Orosco
In the Spring term of 2014, I offered a course titled, “Nineteen Eighty Four and Social Justice.” This timing put the class at three decades after the year 1984; the class itself took place during the months of April, May, and June — approximately the season of the events of the novel.(Click the title to read more)
The aim of the course was to read Orwell’s novel as dystopian political philosophy, looking for insights, or lessons, that it might offer in better understanding social justice issues today. You can see a copy of the syllabus here.
At the end of the term, I asked students to reflect on what they considered to be the crucial message of Nineteen Eighty Four. Here are some of their responses, offering a variety of views on the relevance of Orwell today.
“1984 is full of lessons that are applicable today. Ranging from the importance of ones privacy to the impacts of the ever-decreasing range of the average citizens vocabulary. But what I would say is most important lesson of 1984 is the importance of our humanity and love for one another. This is a topic that has become a cliché from being used so much, but, regardless of that, we still need to understand why it is important and 1984 reminds us of that. Think of the party slogan, “Imagine a boot stepping on the face of humanity- forever. That is the future of the human race.” The political system is rooted in the idea that people, the citizens, are merely a mean to the end of absolute power. 1984 shows the indecencies and atrocious acts that this type of mentality entails by dehumanizing your fellow man. The life in 1984 is an extreme but I guarantee that every individual can remember a time where they used some one for their own gain. It is ingrained is us to excel, succeed and to win, but we must always ask ourselves, “what is the cost?”. The moment that we start to use the lives of others for our own profit and gain is the moment we sacrifice our integrity and value. 1984 shows where this kind of mindset will go and serves as reminder that we need to be wary of those we let lead us and what the cost of our actions truly are.”
“The people of America need to be more aware of the implications of their actions. While we do not live in a world as extreme as George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, there is still the chance that Orwell guessed wrong about the date.
Orwell wrote the book as a warning and it ought to be read as one. While we do not have monitors in every room in present day America, most of our conversations have the potential of being monitored; with everyone using a cellphone and having a XboxOne in every room. The government having the technology to record and store information to this magnitude not only violates our rights to privacy, but a multitude of different rights such as the right to free speech and a fair trail.
After much deliberation and thought, I believe that Orwell’s novel has the potential of being right. The American people of today do not realize the amount of power we have tacitly agreed to give to our government. Maybe we, the citizens (Or the Proles) do not want to rebel today, but we have given capacities of the government to monitor our private lives; effectively giving the government many values we hold dearly.
As you read Nineteen-Eighty-Four, you cannot help but feel sympathy for Winston. Most people reading the novel never want to find themselves in that position. America must read Nineteen-Eighty-Four and be ready to take whatever means necessary to prevent an extreme totalitarian regime such as this from coming to power. ”
“1984‘s themes introduce chilling questions. What does all this mean for privacy in the future? Telling our secrets and giving up a little bit of our privacy is a display of trust; keeping them means that we cannot trust others with some piece of ourselves. Our secrets are a measure of our disconformity, and to let them in the light is to allow others to judge and shame us for breaking society’s sacrosanct status quo. It may be apparent to many of us that secrets are not things that we particularly want to keep, but that we have to. If we want them hidden, it is often out of fear. To do away with our fear of secrets being revealed, we must do away with the need for secrecy. It is predicated on hierarchical notions of a life defined, that there is only one way to be. Technology has shown us the opposite; human flourishing spans a wide array of lifestyles and cultures, each with its own insights and beneficial perspectives on what it means to be human. Instead of fearing the loss of secrecy, we should embrace it – that we might better know each other. What we can learn about privacy and social justice from 1984 is that in the face of technologies diminishing individual privacy we should hold those who diminish it accountable. Be they government forces, the free market, or even other people, this collection of information should be spread and discussed, not hidden and manipulated.”
“Within only six months, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag burned, and the Nazi’s (gaining a majority in the Reichstag through coalition with one small extremist party) were able to democratically end democracy and create a national security state in which all civil liberties were effectively ended in a month’s time. Legislation gave Hitler the dictatorial powers that led to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Similar to the PATRIOT Act, itself enacted with breathtaking speed and little opposition in 2001, the Enabling Act of 1933 was subject to parliamentary renewal and was consistently renewed.
1984, despite what has become an unfortunate title, opposed totalitarian states by highlighting the worst of what can happen to “decent, middle-class folks” in the veritable instant in which those with power claim to “protect” us. As late as 2014, 1984 suggests the tools which political/business/military interests use to persuade and coerce us into behavior that lodges social/police power with those who may not have our best interests at heart. As the technological surveillance ability of the state increases month to month, seemingly exponentially, the world in which we live becomes more like that of the novel. It challenges us to reflect on the power our own political/business/military interests have and how we are to take action to protect our liberties.”
“George Orwell wrote his satirical dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, in 1948 – a novel we are still talking about some sixty-six years later. But, why are we discussing it? It is a satirical work meant to comment on the state of affairs in London at the time it was written. So, why are we still reading it today and what are the lessons it holds?
I believe our fasciation with Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-four stems from a subconscious recognition of how easily our society could turn into an Oceanian like State. We are already living with our television sets constantly streaming the propaganda of the day or conveniently distracting the general public with “reality” television shows. Now, with the advent of smart phones, tablets, and free wifi access almost everywhere one can take this media “on the go” so we will never have to part with the well oiled propaganda machine. This constant stream of media keep the majority of the population distracted with meaningless stimuli and keeps them complacently in their place.
Orwell’s novel urges us to take a closer look at how information is created, maintained, and allowed to spread in a modern society. In addition, it demands we be more critical of our privacy, and ability to have and share radical creative thought. Orwell many not have intended his work to become a guidebook for social justice in the modern age and I am not saying that it has. However, it has influenced many great thinker and will continue to fascinate the masses as his words ever so delicately pluck our subconscious and get us to question – is our lived reality so different from Oceania?”