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The term “Orwellian” is often invoked to describe actions that evoke the themes of surveillance, authoritarianism, and manipulation of truth found in George Orwell’s dystopian works, particularly 1984.

The term is used to critique practices that encroach on individual freedoms, subvert democratic processes, or employ language in a deceptive and manipulative manner to control perception and behavior.

Whether it’s applied to pervasive surveillance technologies, newspeak-like euphemisms for war or state-sanctioned violence, or systematic efforts to rewrite history, “Orwellian” serves as a powerful shorthand for authoritarian tendencies that are seen as antithetical to democratic principles.

Dangers of “Orwellian” thinking

Orwellian thinking, characterized by pervasive surveillance, manipulation of truth, and authoritarian tendencies, poses grave dangers to the foundational principles of democratic societies.

One immediate concern is the erosion of individual liberties, as the installation of surveillance systems under the guise of “national security” can result in an invasive monitoring of personal lives.

This not only diminishes privacy but also chills free expression, as individuals become increasingly wary of expressing dissenting opinions for fear of retribution.

Another facet of Orwellianism is the manipulation of language and information to control public perception and thought.

This manipulation, often carried out through state-controlled media or propagandistic techniques, undermines the citizens’ ability to make informed decisions, thus hollowing out the very essence of democratic participation.

When facts become malleable and truth is relative, public debate degenerates into a contest of who can best manipulate perception—a far cry from the reasoned discourse that is supposed to inform democratic decision-making.

More on “Orwellian”

The epithet that members of both parties hurl at each other to invoke a sinister, reality-denying future akin to the one in the novel 1984.

“When people describe language as Orwellian, it’s usually with the implication that it’s designed to mislead a credulous or uncritical public,” University of California-Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in his 2006 book Talking Right, about how conservatives have used language to try to gain an edge over liberals.

Usage of “Orwellian” has risen dramatically since George Orwell’s classic appeared in 1949—especially since the 1990s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer. Politics—and presidential politics in particular—can take credit, or blame, for much of that. The term was a staple of former Alaska GOP governor Sarah Palin when she was John McCain’s 2008 running mate. And it has become a favorite of Texas senator Ted Cruz, who has invoked it to decry what he says is President Obama’s refusal to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” out of a supposed fear of upsetting anyone who is Muslim.

But it’s also popular on the left: Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is among those who uses it to complain about national security agencies’ unauthorized eavesdropping on Americans.

In fact, of the top ten members of Congress to use the phrase most often in floor debates, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s, six are Republicans and four are Democrats. They include McCain, who went so far as to enter into the Congressional Record a March 2015 Wall Street Journal column headlined “The Orwellian Obama Presidency,” and fellow 2008 hopeful Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat who says the use of unmanned drone strikes on suspected terrorists fits with Big Brother’s vision.

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Orwellian” in a sentence

  • The introduction of mass surveillance programs in the name of national security was quickly criticized as Orwellian, undermining the individual liberties that the nation purports to defend.
  • The government’s attempt to control the narrative by labeling factual reporting as “fake news” struck many observers as an Orwellian manipulation of truth.
  • Critics argue that the extensive use of euphemistic language in describing military actions—such as “collateral damage” for civilian casualties—has an Orwellian effect, sanitizing the harsh realities and ethical complexities of warfare.