[Paleopsych] Promethea: Doublethink

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Mon Dec 26 02:25:34 UTC 2005


[This all assumes that nearly everyone dislikes the System but just can't
admit it, even to themselves. It would be more correct to say that the masses 
are too distracted by bread and circuses to worry.]

One of the more profound realizations on the part of Eric Blair,
who wrote under the pen name George Orwell, is first illustrated in
this passage of his landmark dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:

   The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with
   Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in
   alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But
   where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness,
   which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others
   accepted the lie which the Party imposed -- if all records told
   the same tale -- then the lie passed into history and became
   truth. "Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls
   the future: who controls the present controls the past." And yet
   the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been
   altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to
   everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an
   unending series of victories over your own memory. "Reality
   control," they called it: in Newspeak, "doublethink."
   His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink.
   To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete
   truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold
   simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to
   be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic
   against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it,
   to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was
   the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary
   to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment
   when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and
   above all, to apply the same process to the process itself --
   that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce
   unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of
   the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand
   the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink.

The profoundest relevance of doublethink likely eludes most readers
of Nineteen Eighty-Four. After all, it is such a plentiful, dense
and multifaceted book. A wealth of original concepts, perspicacious
analysis, and chiefly, effortless prose immerse the unsuspecting
reader in the senses and thoughts of Orwell's protagonist Winston
Smith. Arrested by the almost painful clarity and harsh reality
feel of the storytelling and imagery, the reader may very easily be
led astray from applying adequate attention to some of Orwell's
most brilliant and important insights. (My own favorite piece of
writing in the book which momentarily distracted me from its own
implications is the marvelous passage which concludes: "But you
could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was
pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their
embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow
struck against the Party. It was a political act.") Orwell's
artistic mastery distracts from his content unless his readers read
well - carefully, thoughtfully, repeatedly. Ironically this problem
might have been avoided in a mediocre novel, although we cannot
seriously wish that Orwell had sacrificed his own goals simply to
compensate for others' failures of attention, and not only because
that would deprive us of the masterpiece.

Evidence that in particular doublethink has received lax and
insufficient attention from millions of Orwell's readers comes in
the form of the unwitting neologism, "doublespeak." Somehow,
perhaps because of the expression "double talk," readers have
conflated Orwell's Newspeak with Orwell's doublethink to make
doublespeak, a word which Orwell never used in Nineteen
Eighty-Four, so doublethink comes down into common colloquy and
oratory as the supposedly Orwellian doublespeak. But doublespeak is
a mere offshoot in meaning from Newspeak, a mere subset of the
abuse of language - disingenuous, manipulative, often internally
contradictory meanings in politicized words and phrases.
(Doublethink produces instances of doublespeak.) An understanding
of doublespeak is useful, but the idea is not nearly as profound as
doublethink, missing most of Orwell's subtle point.

Doublethink refers to resolving contradictions which (otherwise)
cannot be resolved, by keeping at least two alternate versions of
something in mind at once, remembering only the approved one in any
circumstance. One does not experience cognitive dissonance unless
one fails at proper doublethink, in which case raw discomfort,
almost physical pain, may be experienced. Other psychologically
important Orwellian Newspeak neologisms, such as crimestop,
blackwhite, and goodthink, are contained within doublethink. From
crimestop to blackwhite to goodthink, Orwell describes the process
as more and more instinctive.

Orwell explains doublethink most explicitly here:

   Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs
   in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The
   Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be
   altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with
   reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies
   himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be
   conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient
   precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring
   with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.

In his extreme circumstance of secret rebellion against
doublethink, Winston finds that it helps him retain a sense of his
own sanity - given the exigency of resisting nearly the whole of
apparent human belief - to use a notion of accessing objectivity,
or keep safe a recognition of an objective reality:

   To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to
   forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it
   becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just
   so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective
   reality and all the while to take account of the reality which
   one denies -- all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using
   the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink.
   For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with
   reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this
   knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap
   ahead of the truth.

Here we see that an objective "true" perspective can serve as a
useful model within a context, proving very useful indeed to
Winston in going against the Party's "collective solipsism" -
though we do not see evidence supporting Ayn Rand's assertion that
objectivity exists as a universal, perfectly accessible ideal
entirely independent of context and perspective. Indeed,
doublethink describes an internal conflict within the mind; it is
even possible to follow doublethink with two things which do not
really conflict practically, merely because one consciously and
unconsciously believes it proper.

The most important thing we can now do with Orwell's concept of
doublethink is to apply it to our own subtle daily discomfort which
leads to forgetting. It is difficult to contemplate the full extent
of what goes on that we know should be changed, so we ignore even
what we know. It is difficult to think of the extent of misery
which is experienced in this world if not in our own lives; of the
injustice, and of the misinformation and lies. It is especially
difficult to even learn about most of it, for its sheer breadth and
depth. The worst is the depth; to know that unbounded monstrosities
are committed in the name of the established order and are
nonetheless not even common topics of conversation, much less
grounds for immediate rebellion against that order - that is
painfully unbelievable. If a shocking number of these and a great
many lesser but similar acts are the work of those in power over us
directly and indirectly, it is difficult to continue to see the
situation as evidence shows it: that much of the worst is done by
those who are supposed the best, and that in value "the high" is
really often the low, and that the things on which people expend so
much energy and attention are really unimportant.

Thousands of affirmations that one is wrong in this unpopular
opinion are given every day, ranging from outright declarations
that all is well, that "the best" among us are really deserving,
that the powerful are as they should be, and that whatever gains
mass attention must therefore be important, to more numerous slight
hints which nonetheless nudge us toward the same conclusions. It is
difficult to know and always remember. Therefore it is easier to
ignore the contradictions between what one has learned by
experience and what one is meant to think, rationalizing as
necessary and improvising justification as it seems required.
Instead of the effort of trying to remember and its consequence of
discomfort, perhaps a painful somberness, even a feeling of being
jarred to half-craziness by knowing terrible facts which should not
ever have happened to become facts to be knowable - oh, it is so
much easier to forget what one does know, at least enough of the
time to render our responses occasional, symbolic, and ineffectual.
Yes, it is easier to receive the comfort of more content company,
those who have also reconciled, or those who have always remained
ignorant of seeing our world as unacceptable. That is the reward
for doublethink.

We - the rememberers of forbidden things - must remember with all
the other forbidden things this secret piece of knowledge: we slink
into doublethink far more unconsciously than consciously. We do not
necessarily get a clear choice. There may not be a point when we
even become aware of the "choice" which an outsider to ourselves
might be able to see we have "made." It is more likely simply
unconscious forgetting, our relatively more unaware nervous
processes adjusting to seek pleasure or comfort instead of pain or
discomfort. With practice, this forgetting becomes second nature,
and if it cannot offer us the really aware peaks and valleys of
happiness possible in this modern world of ours only for those who
become dissidents and rebels of some sort, then at least we have
secured a foggy contentment, making livable the seemingly
unbearable. No one is immune to this. No one is above this.
Everyone appears to have the basic capacity for doublethink; as
Orwell pointed out, even the ability to really understand
doublethink requires its use. Nor are the most dominant themselves
simply above doublethink because they take substantial advantage of
it in others; as Orwell relates here regarding war, they are the
most possessed by doublethink:

   It is precisely in the Inner Party that war hysteria and hatred
   of the enemy are strongest. In his capacity as an administrator,
   it is often necessary for a member of the Inner Party to know
   that this or that item of war news is untruthful, and he may
   often be aware that the entire war is spurious and is either not
   happening or is being waged for purposes quite other than the
   declared ones: but such knowledge is easily neutralized by the
   technique of doublethink.

Even the most carefully resistive probably succumb to doublethink,
to some slight extent, and in some ways. What can we do about it?
Our only weapons against our own weaker instincts are these: one,
to harden ourselves to become stronger in the face of mental
discomfort, two, to find compatriots and companions who support us
instead of those crowds who encourage conformity, and three, to
actively try to remain aware of things we might forget - to fight
for conscious appraisal instead of quasi-consciousness, shocking
ourselves into looking from a different perspective when necessary.
These are our three weapons against doublethink.

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