Indefatigable: An Optimist Reads 1984 and Brave New World

When debating which dystopian future awaits us, or which one we’re most like to bring about ourselves, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are oftentimes compared. As with any illusory binary choice, cheerleaders file themselves behind a singular champion to defend their option and attack the reject, seemingly unaware of the idea that you needn’t make a pick in the first place, or at the very least so quickly pledge your allegiance. Because these works depict a completed world, they rely on backtracking elements in the narrative to provide some idea as to how it came about in the first place. In the case of these two books, those explanatory moments are provided by figures of authority—high figures of authority who are themselves exempt from the strictures forced upon everyone else. They are the keepers of a forbidden knowledge, and this is by necessity since they have to remember why society couldn’t possibly go back to the way things were.

It’s better to look at these books separately and see which, if any, current political or social realities may guide us further closer to the path of a 1984 or Brave New World future. Considering the global nature of the prevailing regimes, it would appear to be to our benefit to go beyond American politics and the American sphere of influence.

Perpetual War vs. Perpetual Peace

Orwell opts for war; Huxley opts for peace. 1984 doesn’t confine war to an intractable conflict devoid of a winning strategy. Instead, war is utilized as an instrument of peace, to facilitate the maintenance of control. The constant bombs dropped in the world of 1984 aid the apathetic feelings desired by those in charge, as the common people have simply come to accept endless war as simply another element of their everyday lives. America today could be said to have been conditioned in this way having been at war now for almost two decades with seemingly no end in sight. Fortunately for us, rather than grow apathetic, I would argue that the American people have instead grown bored of the overseas conflicts that seemingly only succeed in entrapping us. We want less potholes in our roads, so maybe it’s time to stop spending so much on bombs.

Huxley, meanwhile, skips a step and uses peace as an instrument of peace, to facilitate the maintenance of control. The Brave New World is revolutionary because it is so unlike our current world. It is brave to envision and bring about a radically different way of living that achieves what would have been impossible given our love for conflict, drama, tragedy, and comedy. Brave New World recognizes that some of the things we love, like Shakespeare, struggle, perseverance—denial, the very things we acknowledge make us human—prevent us from reaching the perfection universally sought. War means conflict; war means triumph, bravery, courage, and deception; war is useless when those feelings and sentiments no longer exist. Huxley doesn’t need bombs dropped in his town to maintain control. He only needs happiness.

The Brave New World exists because discomfort is removed from society. We currently see one manifestation of this desire in the form of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and politically correct language. For those unfamiliar, I will briefly describe these three facets of American liberal ideology.

  1. Trigger warnings: a notice placed at the beginning of some sort of exhibition or interaction, be it a movie, play, song, dialogue, etc. that preempts potentially problematic words or images that will be heard or seen throughout the course of the exhibition or interaction. Trigger warnings are advocated for by those who have undergone a traumatic experience, or who know of others who have, who may not want to relive that experience by virtue of being re-exposed to images or words that recall the traumatic event. In the context of Brave New World, advocates of trigger warnings believe that the world would be better if people were warned ahead of time that they might be exposed to something uncomfortable or traumatizing. Taken one step further, it might be better if we could avoid discomfort for some people from the get-go.
  2. Safe spaces: a safe space is an area, room, or gathering spot devoid of uncomfortable subject matter. These are havens for people who would like the chance to leave their guard down, having been given the assurance that nothing discussed or displayed will make them recall a traumatizing memory. A safe space may use trigger warnings if it intends to discuss potentially problematic material, so that those attending may excuse or brace themselves for what they are about to experience, or for those involved in the discussion to be more mindful of the sensitive nature of their audience. In the context of Brave New World, advocates of safe spaces believe it would be better if those who experienced trauma could exist in a world where they wouldn’t be afraid of re-experiencing that trauma through inadvertent exposure. Taken one step further, it might be better if we could avoid discomfort for some people from the get-go.
  3. Politically correct language: Due to the changing nature of language, there are words and phrases that fall out of fashion and may now be considered offensive. Because of this, it’s better to reconceptualize and revise the way we talk about things, so as to be more respectful of the target of our words. The intent behind this is to avoid conflict and offense against those who might be taken aback by words they deem problematic. In the context of Brave New World, advocates of politically correct language believe we should use new, appropriate words when referring to certain people or conditions, so as to avoid “othering” and treating them like sub-par members of society. Taken one step further, it might be better if we could avoid discomfort for some people from the get-go.

I’ve tried to make my definition of these terms as devoid of judgment as possible. It is my argument that if we are to embrace these terms, then Brave New World is the future whose possibility becomes a little more real.

Out With the Old, In With the New

When compared with Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 is a traditional, old-fashioned method of maintaining control. War, punishment, and subjugation are the tools of authoritarian governments who maintain and establish control through the use of sheer power alone. They embrace technology and psychological manipulation to set the limits on knowledge and desires. Still, 1984 is not without its deviants who aim to subvert and work for the collapse of the society they live in. When we think of China, we should see a country that is closest to achieving the level of control depicted by Orwell. The government’s control on media, technology, and knowledge allow them to deliver a narrative favorable to the current regime, distribute apps that can be censored or shut down so as to avoid dissent, and decide what the people can and cannot learn or discuss. Forbidding the access of outside media allows the Chinese government to simulate an isolationism necessary for absolute power and control.

Huxley’s Brave New World has no dissenters who exist within the confines of its imagined society. Sure, there’s Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson who dabble in unorthodox thoughts and behaviors, but neither go so far as 1984’s Winston Smith and try to join a revolutionary group. Indeed, when provided with the risk of exile, Bernard fears the idea and repents. The only dissenter in Brave New World is the Savage, named John, who grew up outside of the world state. Brave New World forces us to ask how far we’re willing to go to achieve the peace imagined as Heaven or Paradise. It then shows us what it would take to realize Nirvana, before again leaving you with the question: Isn’t this what you want? The Savage realizes the futility of clinging to temperance when pleasure is always available; the impossibility of desire, jealousy, or envy when anything you want could be yours; the uselessness of need when want is so easily provided and need is inexistent.

Brave New World doesn’t need the old methods of control because it imagines a radical new one: happiness. What if, instead of cultivating an atmosphere of fear, the government that is absolute in its authority develops technology and methods that succeed in creating happiness for its citizens? What if, instead of resting the stability of your regime on shutting down dissent, you made it undesirable for people to dissent because they’re just so happy? A government like this has yet to exist, but we know of plenty of authoritarian ones that have tried time and time again to ensure their longevity. The human spirit rebels against that which imposes an undesirable will, sooner or later. Brave New World provides the model for an ever more persistent authoritarianism that not only expunges the human spirit—it makes it unnecessary and thereby ensures the continuation of the regime.

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