Have you ever simultaneously accepted two contradicting beliefs? Well, that is doublethink. Doublethink is a term first introduced by George Orwell in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In the novel, Orwell describes it as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” As narrated by the main character, Winston Smith, doublethink also means reality control. Thus, it is used to control the minds of the people in a society, making them unaware of which is true between two contradictory beliefs.
At first, doublethink was only a made-up word in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but as the novel marks its place in English literature, the term became a well-known word and even entered two English dictionaries: the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Oxford dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines doublethink as simultaneous belief in two contradictory ideas, while Oxford defines it as the act of holding two opposite opinions or beliefs at the same time. With Orwell’s own added to mix, the three definitions of doublethink essentially hold the same meaning: it is when someone accepts two opposite beliefs and sees both as valid and true at the same time.
Doublethink gives one the control to adopt one belief at a time and eliminate the other that is seen as unfit for the situation. However, both of them can still be believed and eliminated interchangeably depending on the circumstances in the society. Because of this quality, doublethink can also be used as a way to alter, and even fabricate reality—one where truth is replaced to deflect criticism.
The idea of an altered reality is the one employed in the narrative of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fictional government of Oceania—known as the Party—controls the state’s historical records, which are often changed with made-up facts as a tool for the Party to maintain their authority. The Party systematically forces the citizens to adopt doublethink, so they are able to accept the falsified facts of history.
As the result, the citizens forget the actual facts of history because doublethink has taken over their memories—process of the changing facts overwritten with the rest of the altered memory. Another case of doublethink is exhibited by the way the ministries’ jobs completely contradict their names. For instance, the Ministry of Truth is responsible for changing the historical records, while the Ministry of Love is responsible for torturing and punishing those who do not follow Big Brother. However, the citizens seem to not notice the contradictions, suggesting that the doublethink deployed by the Party has successfully controlled them into thinking that the country is well-handled, when in reality, the truth is all constructed of lies and the country is devoured by corruption.
Not only does it occur in the fictional landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four, doublethink is also an integral, if subliminal part of the modern society. Take the law, for example. When a person committed a murder, they would get a death penalty. The question is, would the authority also become a murderer by taking that person’s life? The common answer would be that they would not, since the death penalty is decided by the court that found the person guilty. This is a type of doublethink—people are aware that both actions are essentially killings, but due to the latter being justified by law, people accept the authority’s penalty as the rightful action.
Another less extreme example would be the case where an individual is encouraged to stand out in a group of people, but at the same time is demanded to fit in. Similarly, society often encourages an individual to follow their dream job, but reality requires them a secure job—which does not always align with their dream—to be able to afford living expenses. Both of these exhibits show how doublethink works unconsciously in the society. One belief is accepted, but so is the opposite belief, and one of them will be deemed more favorable if the circumstances calls for it.
With the concept of doublethink, Orwell has presented an idea that was initially unknown to society, but actually had existed in the past, and is still prevalent today. Doublethink might be an ideal way to deal with two opposing beliefs, but it can be tricky if we adopt it into our mindset since naturally, we would rather conform and follow the approved belief in our society even if it’s inaccurate or false. To anticipate such things, we should also be aware of the reality control that comes along with doublethink. That way, we won’t be plunged so easily into a reality fabricated by the society we live in.
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Doublethink. (2015). In Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (9th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Doublethink. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved from www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/doublethink.
Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Harvill Secker.
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