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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

Doublethink and Telescreens

Posted by Nath at 6:19 AM
WARNING: This post contains minor spoilers of George Orwell's 1984. If you or anyone in your family has a history of spoiler allergy, please do not eat this post.

I'll kick this off with a quote from the book itself:
It was the middle of the morning, and Winston had left his cubicle to go to the lavatory.

Sorry, wrong quote. Here we go:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Orwell writes of a country that, halfway through a war, suddenly announces that its enemy was not Eurasia (as was widely thought), but was and always had been Eastasia (which till then was believed to be an ally). The public accepts this new truth within minutes of the announcement, and works itself up into a patriotic fervour against its new old enemy. That makes for a good dystopia novel, perhaps, but I didn't buy it. It's true that I don't think much of the sheeple's reasoning abilities, but nobody could be that gullible, right?

I started thinking of prominent examples of doublethink from the recent past. Saddam Hussein's perceived link to 9/11, for instance. (This one is particularly interesting, because it persists even though the Bush administration has explicitly rejected it.) It is not only feasible but almost inevitable for the people to ignore any inconvenient facts at odds with the desired conclusion.

Orwell is also mentioned occasionally in conjunction with news of the death of privacy. I am always surprised when I am told that privacy has just died, as I was under the impression that it had long since been buried, decomposed and reincarnated as Jack Thompson for its sins in a previous life. I, for one, have always assumed that my IM conversations are logged, my emails monitored, my phone calls run through text-to-speech programs and scanned for occurrences of 'plutonium', 'laser-bears' and so on.

Alas, the right to privacy is one that everybody thinks is generally a good idea, but not enough people think about why exactly. If the powers that be want to listen to my conversations about the relative merits of Colgate and Close-Up, it's their time they're wasting. After all, I'm told, only people with something to hide have something to worry about. But what happens in the unlikely event that I'm talking about something less inane than toothpaste? Would you feel comfortable discussing the death of habeas corpus, say, with the knowledge that the Men in Black are listening in and taking notes?

Free speech is not free speech if it comes with the implied understanding that you will not say controversial things. A right with an exception is not really a right, even though it might look like one. For a right to be meaningful, it must be absolute. Anything else is just a red herring.

So, what am I saying? Should peoples' right to discuss toothpaste in private really take precedence over their safety? I don't have an easy answer to that. The truth is, any right comes with a cost. It is a logically defensible position to claim that the right to free speech is simply too expensive, and should be done away with entirely. It is also logically defensible to say that free speech is worth it, at any cost. The intermediate position, however – to give yourself the illusion of free speech, and then take it away from yourself the instant it starts to matter – that's doublethink.
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