Some books are not fun to read.
Reading them is like dragging yourself through the floodwaters of your backyard ravine after last night's monsoon showers, a staple of any Tucson July. As you trudge forward, you're constantly pulled back by the tautness of the marshy water, threatened by the spines of the shriveled prickly pear cactus floating among you. But you’ve already made it this far and at this point, there’s no turning back. The only option is to keep going.
George Orwell’s "1984" is no different.
The setting is overcast, after a midsummer storm. Characters ebb and flow like flash floods, their disappearances and reappearances unexplained by the totalitarian superstate of Oceania, its own alliances as fickle as the daily forecast in July. A cult of personality has made its descent on the remains of London—now known as Airstrip One—giving rise to a ruthless dictatorship in which civil liberties are curtailed to the maximum and each citizen’s will to live is reduced to serving the government, also known as the Party. The narrative is at once unabashedly devastating and vitally refreshing, like a Sonoran Desert thunderstorm making a sudden appearance after months of drought. It’s hard to digest.
But some books are necessary.
The society described in “1984”—a world in which humans’ capacity for original thought is confined through increasingly-simplistic diction, in which the past is more mutable than the future, in which facts are denuded of irrevocable meaning—is a stone’s throw from the one in which we live today.
Modern truncation of language, rife in the brevity of text messages and tweets, is not far off from Newspeak—the Party’s preferred mode of communication, a language characterized by the utmost level of concision. Like the fictitious citizens of Oceania, people today increasingly drop vowels and consonants from the simplest of sentences in a quest to streamline conversation, sometimes, only to salvage one or two letters.
Newspeak strips the English language of its descriptive vibrancy, replacing centuries of evolving linguistic beauty with unabashed simplicity. “Horrifying” becomes “ungood,” “marvelous” becomes “plusgood,” “superior” becomes “doubleplusgood,” and so on. But the devolution of the four-letter “love” to the three-letter “luv” is a relatively innocuous symptom of a much more insidious phenomenon, one present in our own society: the death of meaningful discourse.
What is most concerning about Newspeak lies not in its promotion of brevity (which, in itself, bears echoes of modern texting language), but rather, in its advocacy of restraint. Through Newspeak, language becomes austere, robbing its users of their ability to express a full range of human emotion, to engage in rewarding discussions with one another beyond prescribed modes of communication.
Today’s world is no different. We live our lives in front of screens, anxiously awaiting the endorsement of others in the form of preordained reactions on social media—hearts, thumbs-ups, emojis, and so on. Our most meaningful modes of interpersonal engagement have devolved into the Pavlovian clicks of a “like” button—the action itself coming to symbolize a litmus test for friendship, an indicator of boundless affection, an emblem of irrevocable loyalty.
We obsess over who among our glut of online friends views our Snapchat and Instagram stories, because in a wading pool of such undemanding gestures we have somehow come to find an ocean of meaning. We conclude text messages with smiley faces, “lols,” and “hahas” to imbue them with an equivocal tone, afraid to pose questions that might unsettle, make comments that might disturb. We hesitate to take risks with language, to let our words occupy the full breadth of the space they deserve.
Whether it’s asking for clarification or telling someone how we feel, we mask our vulnerabilities with the inviting veneer of emojis, sincerely hoping the other person will “get the message.” But in doing so, we withhold our own humanity from the threshold of dialogue, tucking it away in a corner with the rest of our emotions that refuse to be categorized. We let our conversations proceed with an unsettling staccato—devoid of nuance, of spark, of tension, because we are afraid of what could happen if we reveal ourselves completely.
As communication becomes increasingly digitized, people will undoubtedly continue to seek connections with one another online. But if we aspire to do so meaningfully, we need to learn how to use our words again. With the ever-growing English language at our fingertips, it’s far from impossible.
Perhaps we must turn back to books as a first step, dare to immerse ourselves in prescient tales of what happens when we are forced into psychological austerity, robbed of the capability to express ourselves creatively. Orwell’s magnum opus is a reminder: Newspeak is effectively a drought, bereaving the citizens of Oceania of intellectual and emotional capacities. And its modern variant, manifest in the rigid prescriptions of online communication, threatens to do the same to us—unless we fight to restore the nuance of language.
So let the storm come. Let it ravage an atmosphere tainted with aridity, blessing our discourse with moisture and meaning through each of its howls. Let it unshackle the stiff confines of human connection. Let it replenish our collective wellspring of humanity.
Above all, let it sow the seeds of vibrant dialogue.
Meena Venkataramanan '21, a Crimson News editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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