How do you teach '1984' in Brexit Britain?

The redefinition of truth. The dismantling of democracy. Orwell's 1984 is a bit too close to home, says Yvonne Williams

How do English teachers teach George Orwell's 1984 in our post-truth, Brexit era?

The gloriously sunny – at least in the South of England – summer holiday of 2019 draws to a close. I’ve read many a thriller and one historical novel, and planned schemes of work for Twelfth Night and The Crucible. But the one book I can’t seem to sit down to is 1984.

This sounds rather negligent, as it’s our prose exam text for the spring term. But, somehow, with the country's turbulent constitutional crisis taking place at an undemocratic distance, it’s harder than ever to endure Orwell’s masterpiece.

I taught the text in the year 1984 itself, more as a kind of curio than a social or political statement. In those times, as in these, teachers were not permitted to directly express political views – although, of course, every power structure is inherently political. So I could satisfy myself with discussing Julia and Winston’s unlikely romance and all-too-predictable disaster.  

1984: The power of the state

My class back then could touch in detached terms on the intrusiveness of helicopters peering through citizens’ windows. Ridiculous, we thought. Interestingly, I think of the helicopter, not the pilot, as the spy. It’s a sign of the disembodied power of the state and its unemotional application. 

Today there is no need for the helicopter: we have CCTV on virtually every street corner, inside supermarkets and petrol stations, on trains – all for the safety of the citizen, of course. It has its uses in thrillers, to help track down villains or to add to the excitement of the chase when the hero is under surveillance, trying to escape.

One of the latest developments in some 21st-century classrooms is to have cameras routinely fixed so that managers can see what is going on – for the benefit of teaching and learning, naturally. Yes, it’s fertile discussion ground, how far the 21st-century citizen should be under surveillance: the ethics of state and managerial intrusion. Yet so inured have we become to the glass-eyed spy that it’s a topic soon exhausted. Perhaps that’s what’s most worrying.

In the year 1984, I could teach the text through the historical context of the shifting post-war alliances of 1948, and include Stalinist USSR as an example of tyranny. Those were the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Of course, once that structure crumbled so spectacularly, democracy was returned to the people. Yes. 

State colonisation of language

But what to make of the state colonisation of language itself? There are great books on the market at the moment. James Ball’s Post-Truth is an excellent exposé of how powerful players manipulate facts. And, most worryingly, about how little sway the truth holds, even when the speeches of the rich and powerful have been shown to contain some – shall we say – inconsistencies and inaccuracies. 

It’s a world in which we are complicit, because of the natural human tendency to click on to sensational headlines and gobble the words at face value. There’s a lot to teach here about the role of the citizen in an age where facts rest on such shifting sands.

The contamination of truth goes much deeper, though, as Orwell recognised. Newspeak is the language that is dominated by the propaganda apparatus of the state. Syme, a party member working on the 11th edition of the dictionary, asks Winston, “Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make Thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” 

It’s a good reason to resist any impoverishment of language. The dictionary and media outlets in 1984 were in the hands of the politically and linguistically adept, who reduced access to language as a means of suppressing rebellion.

In our time, the internet gives citizens nearly unlimited access to cyber-communication channels. There are so many opportunities to “talk”: WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and online chat. But all this comes at the cost of personal privacy, and it's debatable whether our media are in safe hands. Some would argue that, paradoxically, the range of vocabulary is reduced, and that sophistication of thought has been sacrificed to speed of communication. 

The people have spoken

Most of the established newspapers seem to speak with one voice, propagating a no-holds-barred Brexit message. It’s very hard to find much in their pages that supports the Remain message. 

At macro-level, the linguistic battle has been lost. To point out the numerous consequences of leaving a long-standing trade alliance without retaining even a toehold in its market is to be part of “Project Fear”.

Interesting, too, how “democracy” has been redefined: reduced to the mantra "The people have spoken".

The rather poorly constructed referendum delivered a very slender majority of voters choosing to leave the European Union. Perhaps, like the citizens of Oceania, I am misremembering, but I rather thought that a “no deal” hadn’t been mentioned on the ballot paper. Like Winston Smith, I need to keep a diary to track the shifts and versions of public discourse. 

And, after this week, as Parliament has been prorogued, I will find it even harder to explain what “democracy” means, as we examine the political power structures in 1984. Debate has been silenced not by cutting words out of the official dictionary, but by closing down the chamber in which debate is held. 

Perhaps students won’t be concerned that the MPs representing constituencies will be preparing for party conferences rather than being allowed to hold the prime minister and Cabinet to account.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the South of England

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