‘Alternative Facts’: Was Orwell more prescient than we thought?

It may or may not surprise you that sales of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ have rocketed since Kellyanne Conway, the Counselor to the President, spoke of “alternative facts” in January this year. Over 60 years since its publication and it managed to peak at 6th in the best selling books on Amazon. It seemed as if a dystopian nightmare was upon usĀ as it appeared elements of George Orwell’s Newspeak may have been alluded to by the Government of the United States of America.

For those of you not familiar with Orwell’s canonical text, the protagonist, Winston Smith, holds a post altering documents of the past to suit the Party’s needs, for example changing the enemies Oceania is at war with. “Those who control the past control the present” O’Brien ominously declares. Newspeak declares 2+2 can equal 5, if the Party requires you to believe that is so. This is where Conway comes in. The “alternative facts” controversy comes from Kellyanne Conway describing the controversial discrepancy between Trump’s Press Team’s version of his inauguration ceremony and photographic evidence of the ceremony. Trump claimed the attendance to be higher than that of Obama, with his Press Secretary verifying this message, yet photos from the event suggest numbers were dramatically lower. Kellyanne Conway called this dilemma a case of “alternative facts”, suggesting these two possible interpretations of the truth were both valid, and possible. This raised a few eyebrows in those versed in Orwellian literature.

Doublethink, an element of Newspeak, dictates that a citizen can hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, and accepting them both. This facilitates the continuous alteration of the past in the novel, and prevents people from having contradictory thoughts. Trump sold himself as an ‘anti-politician’, distancing himself from untrustworthy politicians, and lambasting Hilary Clinton as “crooked Hilary”. Yet, at the same time he employs the same methods of linguistic control that Orwell prophesied in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He appears to be twisting cognitive dissonance in his favour. He is not the antidote to the decline in trust in America’s politicians, he is instead a continuation, manipulating language to his needs.

Trump dismisses certain contradictory news as “fake news”, something Orwell was wise to in Catalonia, where he read articles of battles that had never happened. Furthermore, he believed ‘fake news’ would be a line no Western democracy would cross, so Trump’s America seems to outstrip Orwell’s dystopian vision. But what happens when the President of the United States of America promotes his own fake news through the form of “alternative facts”?

Of course this comparison is limited. Indeed, the Party goes further, with Newspeak limiting the vocabulary of the English language to the point where Thoughtcrime (the act of having politically rebellious thoughts) could become “impossible”. This has allusions to the Sapir Whorf hypothesis that our thoughts are limited insofar as our language allows. In other words, we can only think what our language can describe. However, the prospect of a political leader who wants to control the news, and fight the media “tooth and nail” has definite comparisons to Orwell’s classic. Freedom of the press is an essential element to modern, liberal democracy and fortunately most of the public saw through Conway’s “untruth” when describing Trump’s inauguration ceremony. Nevertheless, Trump evoking memories of Newspeak should sound the alarm bell. And a further attack on the media could signal the start of a truly dystopian future that not even Orwell could have predicted.

Image result for inauguration 2017 trump vs obama
The image on the left shows Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The right shows the reduction in attendance in 2017, yet Kellyanne Conway described this as a case of “alternative facts”

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