Orwell, newspeak and democracy today

In George Orwell’s 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘newspeak’ was one of the key tools of the totalitarian State, used to diminish the range of words, hence thoughts, by the citizens. A propagandist language, it is characterised by euphemism, circumlocution and simplified reduction. The Ministry of Truth, for example, was where the historical records were falsified to create new truths.

Generically, newspeak has come to mean any attempt to restrict disapproved language by a government or by influential special interest groups who wish to impose their own newspeak to manipulate debate.

Orwell’s warnings have not been heeded. The propaganda power of language to influence perception is even more evident today than it was in 1949. In public debate, the simplified phrase can become the currency of the policy. Words and phrases become the easy handle for the topic and they are used to mislead and misinform.

Public debate is lessened in importance and in validity by the use of words and phrases that are dishonest.


‘Ethnic cleansing’ is an example of how a vile act can be submerged under a phrase that suggests cleaning up a mess by murdering the target group in large numbers. Ethnic genocide is the proper phrase for it and the media has been a careless accomplice in its widespread use.

The euphemistic phrase has even spawned a computer game (Ethnic Cleansing -2002) developed by Resistance Records, owned by the National Alliance, specialising in Neo-Nazi and white supremacist bands.

Media editors around the world who allow the term into their reports should hang their heads in shame.

Ironically, Wikipedia’s entry for ethnic cleansing begins with a warning: “Not to be confused with genocide.” It begins its definition thus: “Ethnic cleansing is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.”

In Wikipedia, Genocide is defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group…”

The only real difference in these definitions is ‘certain geographic areas’. As if it mattered to the dead men, raped women, traumatised children and desecrated property – or to humanity’s sense of decency.

The hateful intent is rebirthed as ‘cleansing’, a word that implies something positive, while hiding something brutally negative. You could say, in today’s political vernacular, the phrase is spin, where spin is the new lie.

The phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ gained momentum in the early 1990s in the international media, but it wasn’t new. It has an odious history:

{As early as 1914, a Carnegie Endowment report on the Balkan Wars points out that village-burning and ethnic cleansing had traditionally accompanied Balkan wars, regardless of the ethnic group in power. However, the term “cleanse” was probably used first by Vuk Karadžić, to describe what happened to the Turks in Belgrade when the city was captured by the Karadjordje’s forces in 1806. Konstantin Nenadović wrote, in his biography of the famous Serbian leader published in 1883, that after the fighting, “the Serbs, in their bitterness (after 500 years of Turkish occupation), slit the throats of the Turks everywhere they found them, sparing neither the wounded, nor the women, nor the Turkish children”.

On the 16th of May 1941, a commander in the Croatian extremist Ustaše faction, Viktor Gutić, said: “Every Croat who today solicits for our enemies not only is not a good Croat, but also an opponent and disrupter of the prearranged, well-calculated plan for cleansing [čišćenje] our Croatia of unwanted elements.

The Russian term “cleansing of borders” (ochistka granits – очистка границ), was used in Soviet Union documents of the early 1930s to describe the forced resettlement of Polish people from the 22 km border zone in the Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR.

Most notoriously, the Nazi administration in Germany under Adolf Hitler applied a similar term to their systematic replacement of the Jewish people. When an area under Nazi control had its entire Jewish population removed, by driving the population out, by deportation to Concentration Camps and/or murder, that area was declared judenrein (lit. “Jew Clean”): “cleansed of Jews” (cf. racial hygiene). } [1]


A different kind of spin inhabits the language of the abortion debate.  The anti-abortion lobby jumped on the Newspeak bandwagon with ‘pro-life’ as the term to describe its stance. The phrase is unassailable. Who is not? The value of this phrase is that it bypasses the negative sounding ‘anti-abortion’ label and turns the negative into a positive – just like the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ sends a positive message for a negative act.

But it has one other, more objectionable function: it helps to shout down any opponents to its views by its mere use. Pro life is a badge no-one dares to defile. Just like motherhood.

The opponents of the anti-abortion lobby have the ‘pro choice’ label to work with. It’s more open and inviting of debate, but it has less dramatic effect. It is, at least, honest.


In early 2011 (as I write) the latest Newspeak entry into the political language is ‘carbon tax’. It is as reductive as any of Orwell’s Big Brother Newspeak entries, suggesting that the black soot of carbon will be taxed. The power of language is well illustrated in this example as the Government uses words to mislead by simplification.

The proposed tax is on carbon dioxide. It is called pollution, when it is in fact emissions that are the subject of the proposed tax. Carbon dioxide is not dangerous pollution at all. It is the vital gas we exhale and which plants breathe.

The heated debate around this subject (which is not the subject of this essay) is immediately prejudiced by the use of misleading language: it’s basic propaganda, exercised as the most elementary tool to influence public opinion: carbon = soot = dirt = bad.

Whenever Governments or special interest groups use tools that are reminiscent of Newspeak, we should be suspicious and sceptical. Words are conjurers: they conjure up images and notions in our minds that help shape our consciousness and our judgement. Words represent ideas; ideas are powerful. That’s why, for example, the Chinese Government is so nervous about the spread of ideas from the Arab Spring that they launched the most aggressive crackdown on dissidents in years.


Communist China has a long history of maximising the corruptions made possible by the use of Newspeak and all its attendant configurations and manifestations. Indeed, Maoist China had a highly sophisticated and brutal program of ‘thought reform’; we have a first-hand account of how this program worked from Bao Ruo-wang #, who spent years in Mao’s Chinese prisons before being released through French diplomatic intervention in the late 60s.

After the publication of his memoir, Prisoner of Mao, (Penguin, 1976) he gave an extended interview to my father, Dr. G. R. Urban [2a]. Under the subheading, Rules of ‘Newspeak’, there is this exchange:


You have made thought-reform in prison sound like a rather acceptable and even uplifting affair. Yet, as I know from your book, you landed, at one stage of your imprisonment, in solitary confinement – in chains, under terrible conditions. Was this before you began to reform your thinking?


No – my ‘intellectual rebirth’ was already well underway when I made the cardinal mistake of not learning how to fall in with the ideological jargon.

One day I was subjected to a ‘struggle’ session – more of which later*. I was told to examine my conscience and disclose to my schoolmates my thoughts about food and Tibet. I was urged to speak the truth and open up my soul without fear of punishment. I took this seriously and brought out everything I had on my mind. On food, I said all the right things: food was a precious commodity which must not be wasted; over-eating leads to sluggishness, dereliction of duty, and so on. But when it came to Tibet my truthfulness got me into trouble. I said: the pacification of Tibet by China was an act of annexation pure and simple in the old imperialist tradition.

Well, I was given solitary for that, chained to the floor, unable to stand up, covered in lice, like a dog.

When I was finally brought out I was asked: ‘What do you now think of Tibet?’ ‘You have lied to me,’ I answered, ‘because you told me to speak the truth, and when I did you put me in chains.’’

‘Not at all,’ I was told; ‘you took advantage of our study-sessions to spread your criminal ideas.’ ‘Oh, no,’ I answered, ‘I was merely expressing my thoughts.’

‘Expressing your thoughts? That’s not what you did. Here is a record of your statement at the study-session. You said: ‘The pacification of Tibet by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is an act of annexation in the purest imperialist traditional’ That’s not a thought! It purports to be a statement of fact. Now, suppose you’re going to talk again at a study-session and you’re still harbouring dark ideas – here is how you should go about telling us about them: ‘Well, classmates, I harbour some terrible thoughts – my mind is far from being reformed and that is why dark ideas persist in raising their ugly heads in me. I’m now going to reveal to you what my bad thoughts are, and I would like you to help me correct the.’ If you had said all this when you chose to speak about Tibet you would not have been put in chains and sent to solitary confinement.’

* Struggle sessions: when a ‘student’ undergoing preparation for his confession in the thought-reform system was a bit slow indicting himself, he is sent to be ‘struggled’ – a confrontation with his ‘classmates’. Facing a group – a cell, a yard or even a large stadium – the ‘classmates’ begin arguing with you. “The fiction is that the struggle is directed not against you, but your sins, you bad thoughts, your dishonesty in refusing rectification and to think what the Government wants you to think.”

The above anecdote has distinct echoes in today’s Australia as the debate rages over aspects of climate change; not, of course, in the physicality of the ‘struggle’ system but in the underlying psychological method. The deniers are those ‘students’ who are sceptical about man’s contribution to global warming. The ‘classmates’ who argue with them include scientists, politicians, the climate change industry and its lobby and those known as ‘believers’.

The religiously nuanced terminology is very much in keeping with the principles of Newspeak and the principles of thought reform. The linkage to ‘belief’ lessens the room for scepticism to be respected as part of the normal, rigorous scientific process. This moral dimension that shrouds the climate believer is both a protective device and an offensive weapon. There is little room for rational debate; it has become a matter of faith and faith is not open to rational debate. Of course, the shutting down of rational debate is one of the primary objectives of a Newspeak mindset.

A clear demonstration of this was given by Penny Wong (Finance Minister since September 2010, previously Climate Change & Water Minister) when she was a guest on Agenda (Sky News, April 2011).  She was responding to statistics that humans contributed some 4% of total CO2 emissions and Australia’s share of that was about 1.4%. Wong began her reply by saying, “Well, you can hide behind those figures ….” Her irrational response is a tell-tale sign that Government policy is to shut down rational debate.

Writing about a different subject but a similar method, Leonard Schapiro writes in, Stalinism [2b]: “Lenin’s second weapon was the lie, or the ideology – which comes to the same thing, since in view of the fact that the ideology does not correspond to the reality which people see around them, its dogmas have to be reiterated with increasing persistence in spite of, or because of, their falsity …… The more it became evident to more people that the reality did not correspond to what was proclaimed as ‘scientifically’ true, the greater the need became to keep it intact and to maintain its authority by force. Hence the familiar Communist battle for minds. Critics are forcibly silenced, mass opinion is mobilised by agitators for political ends and information is strictly controlled to give the official ideology the advantage of not having to face the competition of truth.” [2b]

My point here is that once you redefine the subject of climate change as a ‘moral challenge’ and clothe it in quasi religious or dogmatic robes, you soon are having to keep it aloft by any means. It is thus positioned outside the ambit of science and therefore any change in the scientific observations become politically destabilising and dangerous.

Newspeak is there to help in such situations. Australia is not alone in the world to succumb to creeping Newspeak and its harmful, corrosive nature in the body politic, but that is no excuse to use it.

Sources & References:

1 – Wikipedia, ‘ethnic cleansing’

2 – Stalinism – Its Impact on Russia and the World, Edited by Dr. G. R. Urban (1982); published by Maurice Temple Smith Ltd;

a) Chapter 9 – Thought Reform in Chinese Prison.

b) Epilogue, Leonard Schapiro, 1908 – 1983. At time of writing this, was Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Emeritus of Political Science (Russian Studies) University of London & The London School of Economics and author.

# Bao Ruo-wang (Jean Pasqualini) was born in Peking of a Corsican father and Chinese mother. He lived in China and married a Chinese woman but retained French citizenship. Arrested in 1957, he was kept in various camps and prisons until 1964 when he was released “as a special gesture of extraordinary magnanimity” to mark French recognition of Communist China. He moved to Paris.

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