I started reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four over the year-end holidays. So far I’ve only gotten through the 2003 foreword by Thomas Pynchon, the annex on Newspeak, and the first 5 pages of the book.

Pynchon is perhaps best known for The Crying of Lot 49, another book I need to read. Strangely, I can’t remember if I’ve read either 1984 or Lot 49 already.

Pynchon’s foreword alone has me fascinated. I’m going to enjoy (or maybe simply be depressed about) finding parallels between Orwell’s 1984 and life in 2011, I can already tell.

Some interesting bits in Pynchon’s forward include:

Doublethink and cognitive dissonance

Pynchon says, “there has arisen a sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking, in which words like ‘democracy’ can bear two irreconcilable meanings, and such things as concentration camps and mass deportations can be right and wrong simultaneously….

“We recognize this ‘sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking’ as a source for one of the great achievements of this novel, one which has entered the everyday language of political discourse — the identification and analysis of doublethink…. Doublethink is a form of mental discipline whose goal…is to be able to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. This is nothing new, of course. We all do it. In social psychology it has long been known as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Others like to call it ‘compartmentalization.’ Some, famously F. Scott Fitzgerald, have considered it evidence of genius….”

Doublethink in government entities

In 1984, Doublethink also lies behind the names of the superministries which run things… the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Love tortures…. If this seems unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problems with a war-making apparatus named the ‘Department of Defense,’ any more than we have saying ‘Department of Justice’ with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI.”

Doublethink in the media

Pynchon goes on to say that “Our nominally free news media are required to represent ‘balanced’ coverage, in which every ‘truth’ is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed ‘spin’ as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time — it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.”

Doublethink now

Obviously the current US (and every other) government system uses doublethink in pretty much every way, shape and form, regardless of the party in power.

And consider the reactions in the US to similar yet somehow different situations and events. I don’t say this to be offensive, but I’ve heard these arguments thrown out to counter each other:

  • Can we blame the horrible killings at Colombine on Marilyn Manson? Can we blame the horrible shootings of an Arizona congresswoman and others on Sarah Palin?
  • Should the NRA hold a conference in Colombine? Should a mosque be built near the site of 9/11?
  • What does Internet freedom mean in Iran and China. What does it mean in the US (hello Wikileaks).
  • What about support for Cote d’Ivoire post election vs. support for today’s Sudan referendum?
  • What about abortion being right and the death penalty wrong… or the death penalty being right and abortion wrong.

Certainly context and nuance need to be taken into consideration in each of these cases, but context and nuance are usually colored by our own subjective belief systems. We tend to do a lot of doublethink as a nation and as people living within political systems in general.

I won’t even go into the Tea Party movement’s doublethink. And if you are a Tea Party supporter reading this, certainly you’ll list off doublethink that you see in the beliefs of Democrats.

Doublethink in aid and development

Shortly after reading Pynchon’s foreword, I read this interview where Ben Ramalingam talks about complexity and aid. About two-thirds of the way down, Ben is asked How well do aid organizations operate in complex environments? and he responds:

“One of the most interesting complexity perspectives is the idea that has come out of Rosalind Eyben’s recent work at the Institute of Development Studies. Ros used to run DFID country offices across Latin America and was also the DFID chief of social development, and her argument is that…a number of people in aid agencies do deal [with] complex, non-linear, realities on a daily basis, but they do it under the radar, below the wire, away from the watchful eyes of head offices….

But these same people also have to spend a huge amount of time filtering complexity, making their good work fit the hungry machine, to feed what Andrew Natsios has called the aid counter-bureaucracy, which increasingly demands positive numbers and simple narratives.

People always talk about the challenge of speaking truth to power, the ongoing Wikileaks is just the latest and highest profile manifestation. But in our sector, there may be as much of need to get power to speak truth. Andrew Natsios could only speak out about the complexity of aid, and the idea that measurability was inversely proportional to development relevance – his words, not mine – when he was no longer in USAID. While he ran USAID he couldn’t say that – he perpetuated, perhaps even strengthened – the counter-bureacratic system. Why? There is a real, unspoken, but intensely felt, human cost to living with this level of cognitive dissonance.”

Doublethink isn’t only happening at USAID and other large institutional funding agencies. What about doublethink when it comes to marketing vs programs? What about corporate social responsibility doublethink?

So what’s up with Doublethink?

Is mastering doublethink a necessary survival skill in today’s world, a sign of genius as F. Scott Fitzgerald said? Or is doublethink something that needs to be overcome by speaking truth to power and pushing power to speak truth?

About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

7 responses to “Doublethink

  • Michael Keizer

    Is mastering doublethink a necessary survival skill in today’s world, a sign of genius as F. Scott Fitzgerald said? Or is doublethink something that needs to be overcome by speaking truth to power and pushing power to speak truth?

    Is it necessarily either/or? Can’t (or even: shouldn’t) the two coexist?

  • Shotgun Shack

    Maybe I need to finish reading the book to answer you properly – it’s entirely possible that I haven’t understood doublethink in the context of 1984 yet since I have only just started reading the book.

    At the moment, I’m thinking doublethink is not a good thing. I seems like hypocrisy and lies, or like a defense mechanism that we implement subconsciously to deal with situations where we consistently say one thing publicly and do another thing secretly or we lie to ourselves to justify our thoughts and actions. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why the two should co-exist…. feel free to dominate the comments section here 🙂


    • Michael Keizer

      To answer that, I should state from the outset that I am a consequentialist: for me intentions are much less important than the resulting outcomes. In other words: whatever works. (Please don’t confuse this with utilitarianism — you can be a consequentialist without being a utilitarian. In fact, I am.)

      I have been in more than one situation where a moderate form of speaking truth to power would yield best results; i.e. oppposing doublespeak on some issues, while playing the game on others. For a consequentialist, in such a situation that means that the best policy is to do both.

  • T

    Department of Defense used to be Department of War until 1949. I think Orwell got this as an idea.

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