Newspeak and Hermeneutical Injustice
You are already living with deleted language.
George Orwell’s novel 1984 imagines a controlled form of language known as Newspeak employed by a fictional totalitarian regime. Newspeak has a restricted vocabulary designed to limit the ability to articulate or think ideas that might undermine the ruling party. In newspeak, complex ideas are reduced to simplified meanings, with some concepts lacking any words to articulate them at all.
Newspeak is an intentional form of hermeneutical injustice. Hermeneutical injustice is a form of epistemic injustice where someone’s significant experiences are unable to be articulated or understood. In other words, not having the words to describe injustice is itself an injustice. Since Newspeak involves the deliberate removal of words, then one could think of it as a deliberate act of epistemic injustice.
It is easy to see why a totalitarian regime would engage in hermeneutical injustice. If you don’t have the words to describe oppression, you can’t resist it. The word “freedom” and the understanding of the concept of “individual liberty” would be essential for resisting an all-encompassing police state, which is why the ruling party would delete it from your vocabulary.
In the novel 1984, the protagonist suggests that by 2050 all “Oldspeak” will have disappeared, rendering all past literature unintelligible. Imagine that instead of the world of 1984, you were born in 2050, a sequel where the party had succeeded in transitioning the whole world to Newspeak. How would you know you were missing certain concepts?
Newspeak would be your first language. You learned it as a baby. You couldn’t read Oldspeak texts. You might even only know party-approved interpretations of them, updated into the new language that transformed their meaning to be the opposite of the original. You’d never know you were missing anything. You’d just have thoughts and feelings you couldn’t articulate. The words you would have would be thought-terminating cliches that would label those feelings “thoughtcrime” and cause your mind to attempt to silence them.
If you happened to read Oldspeak works, you could not understand them. You wouldn’t understand the concepts they discussed. Talking about those works would require the same level of translation needed when talking about a word from another language or culture. The level of translation needed to bring “freedom” into such a world would be comparable to translating an ancient concept like “kundalini” into Western scientific culture. It would take great work. Even if you did, many would not understand or accept the idea.
Here is the bad news: you are already missing concepts from your vocabulary. Not just concepts common to historical cultures, though to be clear, there are plenty of those. There are also concepts missing from your vocabulary because they were never invented. The ruling hegemony did not have to delete them. They just never created them for you. For the concepts that might challenge their power, both historical and modern, they created thought-terminating cliches to silence them.
How would you know you were living in a world with Newspeak? You’d just have thoughts and feelings you couldn’t articulate. When you tried to articulate them, there would be thought-terminating cliches intended to silence your feelings or label them wrong. Does that sound like the world we live in now?
How would you escape such a world? If you were in the world of 1984, or our proposed sequel 2050, you would have to do two things:
First, you would have to be brave enough to explore thoughts and feelings previously labeled “thoughtcrime.” In 1984, “thoughtcrime” was any thought not permitted by the party. I’m sure if you think about it you can name a few thoughts or ideas not permitted by the modern hegemony. I won’t list them here. You know what they are.
Exploring these thoughts requires moving past the thought-terminating cliches the modern hegemony has created for them. If we don’t label them with “thoughtcrime” labels and are just present with our thoughts and feelings like a zen practitioner meditating, what understanding might emerge?
Second, you would have to give those thoughts and feelings names that rendered them understandable. These names could be taken from Oldspeak, meaning names from previously banned or forgotten texts. They could also be new names, invented to describe experiences that could not be understood using any previous names. If historical English is Oldspeak and party-approved language is Newspeak, we could call this new language “Futurespeak.”
Ironically, the novel 1984 itself chooses this path and creates new language. Words like “thoughtcrime,” “Newspeak,” and even the name of the novel itself have entered the political lexicon and been used to describe and understand modern political problems. The book has been more useful for understanding totalitarianism than even many historical accounts of oppressive regimes. I would argue that this understanding is due in part to the language invented by Orwell in 1984.
Without this novel, what understanding would we be missing? What words and concepts are we missing now because no one ever wrote the story to understand them? This is the issue of hermeneutical injustice. To solve it, we must invent the language of the future.