Getting inside us

George Orwell, who did so much to call attention to the ways in which the totalitarian movements of the last century corrupted political life, understood almost intuitively how propaganda was fundamental in their success. Drawing on his experiences with fascism in the Spanish Civil War and his knowledge of Russian communism, he examined how, by controlling language and discourse, and through the relentless repetition of half-truths and lies, official propaganda could sway and control the thinking of ordinary people.

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), perhaps his most influential essay, Orwell held language out as a critical “instrument for expressing rather than for concealing or preventing thought.” By pointing out the increasingly complex ways in which corrupted language precipitates chains of cause and effect that lead to corrupted thinking and distorted politics, his essay has become one of our most durable literary monuments on language and propaganda. (The term “propaganda” was born in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals, called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for Propagating the Faith. It was established much as departments of propaganda were later established by communist parties: to create orthodoxy by making sure priests were properly inoculated with canonic doctrine before being dispatched on evangelistic missions abroad.)

As in Catholicism, in which the wrong use of words could bring charges of apostasy and the church tried to control what was said and written, Orwell worried over the political effects of governmental control of language.


“A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” he wrote. “It is the same thing that is happening with the English language. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration. ... Above all what is needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”

If Orwell were to return to our post-1984 world, it would be interesting to know what he might make of the situation. For, as horrified as he was during the middle of the last century by what he saw of propaganda’s capacity to distort and corrupt, he nonetheless retained naive optimism in the inviolability of the individual soul, where, he believed, human qualities such as love, loyalty and devotion might still find refuge. Indeed, he almost quaintly believed that though “they” could control everything in the external world, “they can’t get inside you.”

What Orwell could not know in the 1930s and 1940s was that totalitarianism and its propaganda apparatus would ultimately succeed in penetrating “the inner heart” of individuals. Nor could he have known how much more sophisticated propaganda was destined to become -- how in the end of the 20th century, latter-day avatars would graft onto this already dark art a whole host of new and extremely powerful elements.

Orville Schell, the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, is the director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.