George Orwell Newspeak Essays

Published in 1949, the dystopian novel Ninenteen-Eighty-Four is the conclusion of George Orwell’s writing; what is more, it is the conclusion of almost everything that Orwell had written since 1936. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell created a totalitarian universe, Oceania, with its own history and inner mechanism and became so famous that it gave gay to a new term known as “Orwellian” which has come to describe actions or organizations reminiscent of the totalitarian society depicted throughout the novel.

In this essay, I am going to explain the different examples about ‘manipulation of language as a weapon of mind control and abuse of power’ that we can find in the novel, that is to say, the different methods the author uses to show us this.

George Orwell’s writings are focused basically against Fascism. The situations he live throughout his life made him reject any kind of totalitarian society. He lived terrible moments which shocked him, like for example when he travelled to Catalonia during the civil war. At this moment it was when he really realised the dangers of totalitarism. The Word War II also affected him very much indeed. Orwell was against the war because he thought it would lead to some kind of fascism in England. To him it was a repetition of Spain where some people during the civil war wanted to fight Franco in the name of bourgeois democracy.

He thought that Totalitarian societies and specially the one portrayed in the novel wanted to turn humans into machines, to replace the organic by the inorganic, to create synthetic happiness by eradicating all that may evoke natural passions and personal inclinations. They want in this single state all buildings have walls of glass so that the actions of the occupants are visible. Only during sex are the curtains drawn for a brief moment, sexual behaviour being strictly controlled by the Sexual Bureau. This soulless society is ruled by a dictator, the Benefactor, who is supported and helped by a political police (who in this case would be The Big Brother), the Guardians, that hover above the cities with surveillance equipment. Confessions are extracted by torture and criminals are simply liquidated. Informing, even on family members and friends, is a sacred duty.

This is basically what is about Ninenteen-eighty-Four; but what is important here is the way they achieve so, the way they get to control people. They make use of plenty of techniques such as control of information and history, psychological manipulation, physical control, technology, etc, but the ones I going to deal with in depth in my essay are those related to mind control, the ways in which they manipulate people’s minds.

Orwell believed that totalitarianism and the corruption of language were connected. He focused especially on political language where you distorted events and concepts by calling them something else. You said things in such a way that you avoided producing an inner picture of them. As an example, in Politics and the English Language. He said that ‘If thoughts can corrupt language, language can also corrupt thoughts. ‘ This idea would eventually lead to Newspeak.

This mentioned forms of manipulation are harder to fight against because they are aimed at the mind. First, the entire system is based on falsification of history – for two purposes. Outwardly the Party is infallible and is forced to change all information when it has been wrong in some connection or other. The falsification of history takes place in the Ministry of Truth where Winstonworks. Of course he knows what he is really doing, but that does not worry him because so many changes have already been made that he is just replacing one lie with another. The second purpose is to eradicate memory from the minds of people. The only reason why people put up with their miserable conditions is that they have been told that it was much worse before the revolution. And as no correct information about the past exists, nobody knows if it is true. Perhaps it really was worse before, and then you shouldn’t complain.

Language as Mind Control

One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984 is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing. If control of language was centralized in a political agency, Orwell proposes, such an agency could possibly alter the very structure of language to make it impossible to even conceive of disobedient or rebellious thoughts, because there would be no words with which to think them. This idea manifests itself in the language of Newspeak, which the Party has introduced to replace English. The Party is constantly refining and perfecting Newspeak, with the ultimate goal that no one will be capable of conceptualizing anything that might question the Party’s absolute power.

When it is necessary to manipulate with history and your own memory it is equally necessary to forget that you have done so. This is accomplished with a mental technique, which in Oldspeak was called reality-control and in Newspeak is called doublethink:

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” [NEF pp. 31-2]

Newspeak is the official language of Oceania and its purpose is to fulfil the ideological demands of Ingsoc. In 1984 no one employs Newspeak as the only means of expression, but it is expected that Newspeak will have replaced Oldspeak around year 2050. Newspeak consists of abbreviations, and Orwell writes in his Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four on Newspeak that already early in the twentieth century abbreviations were part of political language. It was especially widespread in totalitarian countries and organisations. As examples he mentions Nazi, Gestapo, Komintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. From a totalitarian viewpoint the advantage of abbreviations like these is that their meaning is limited and altered so that all associations are removed.

The purpose of Newspeak is not only to be a medium for the ideas and worldview of Ingsoc; it is also meant to make all other ways of thinking impossible and thus remove all heretical thoughts.

” ’Don’t you see that 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. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. […] Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. […] In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’ ” [NEF pp. 45-6]

At a point Winston writes in his diary that he understands how but not why. This why George Bowling already asked in Coming up for Air in 1939, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien gives him the answer.

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. […] Power it not a means, it is an end.” [NEF p. 211]

First of all you have to realise, O’Brien says, that power is collective. The individual only has power if he ceases to be an individual. Alone and free man will always suffer defeat. It has to be this way because man is mortal. But if the individual can subject himself completely, if he can escape from his identity, if he can let himself be engulfed so much by the Party that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. Next, you have to realise that power is power over people, over the body and especially over the mind.

” ’If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ ” [NEF p. 215]

The Thought Police have telescreens in every household and public area, as well as hidden microphones and spies in order to catch potential thought criminals who could endanger the sanctity of the Party. Children were carefully brainwashed from birth to report any suspected thought criminal, even their parents.

Newspeak is a fictional or artificial language. At the end of the novel there is an appendix on Newspeak (the artificial language invented and, by degrees, imposed by the Party to limit the capacity to express or even think “unorthodox” thoughts), in the style of an academic essay, and explains how the language is designed to standardise thought to reflect the ideology of Ingsoc; that is, by making “all other modes of thought impossible”.
By means of the creation of this newspeak, what they want to achieve is a language that does not allow any bad though or even contrary to the Party. By eliminating any thought contrary to the Party they make sure that they all love it and cannot destroy it.

This suited the totalitarian regime of the Party, whose aim was to make subversive thought (“thoughtcrime”) and speech impossible.
The Newspeak term for the existing English language was Oldspeak. Oldspeak was supposed to have been completely eclipsed by Newspeak by 2050.

The genesis of Orwell’s Newspeak can be seen in his earlier essay, Politics and the English Language, (which is explained much more in deep here) where he laments the quality of the English of his day, citing examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction or rhetoric, and meaningless words – all of which contribute to fuzzy ideas and a lack of logical thinking. Towards the end of this essay, having argued his case, Orwell muses:

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words or constructions.

Thus Newspeak is possibly an attempt by Orwell to describe a deliberate intent to exploit this decadence with the aim of oppressing its speakers.

A comparison to Newspeak may arguably be seen in political rhetoric, where two opposing sides string together phrases so empty of meaning that they may be compared to the taunts young children toss back and forth. The arguments of either side ultimately reduce to “I’m good; he’s bad.”

Charges of Newspeak are sometimes advanced when a group tries to replace a word/phrase that is politically unsuitable (e.g. “civilian casualties”) or offensive (e.g. “murder”) with a politically correct or inoffensive one (e.g. “collateral damage”). Some maintain that to make certain words or phrases ‘unspeakable’ (thoughtcrime), restricts what ideas may be held (Newspeak) and is therefore tantamount to censorship. Others believe that expunging terms that have fallen out of favour or become insulting will make people less likely to hold outdated or offensive views. The intent to alter the minds of the public through changes made to language illustrates Newspeak perfectly.

Either way, there is a resemblance between political correctness and Newspeak, although some may feel that they differ in their intentions: in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is instituted to enhance the power of the state over the individual; politically correct language, on the other hand, is said by supporters to free individuals from stereotypical preconceptions caused by the use of prejudicial terminology. It is this attempt to change thought through changing (or eliminating) words that earns political correctness the connection to Newspeak. The main distinction is that politically correct language is often inspired only by politeness, while Newspeak has a more explicit limiting political motivation.

However, there exist striking instances where Orwell’s speculation have matched with reality. Orwell suggested that all philosophies prior to Ingsoc (English Socialism) would be covered under the term ‘oldthink,’ bearing with it none of the nuances of these ideologies, but simply a connotation of badness. Since the Cold War, a similar effect has been wrought on the word ‘communism,’ where it no longer bears with it, to most people, the doctrines of Marx, Engels, or Lenin, but rather a general bad connotation. (Much the same could be said about ‘fascism,’ perhaps with even more accuracy.)

Two examples unrelated to political correctness are Basic English, a language which prides itself on reducing the number of English words, and E-Prime another simplifed version of English.

Political groups often avail themselves of the principles behind Newspeak to frame their views in a positive way. Thus the term “estate tax” was replaced by the “death tax.” A similar effect may be observed in the abortion debates where those advocating restrictions on abortion label themselves “pro-life,” leaving their opponents presumably “anti-life.” Conversely, those advocating greater availability of abortion call themselves “pro-choice,” and the opposition “anti-choice,” to engender similarly positive emotions.

Another common use of Newspeak today is the overuse of abbreviations. To quote from the 1984 Appendix “It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.” Attention is also drawn to the use of such abbreviations by totalitarian regimes prior to World War II.

Even more powerful are acronyms like “Ofcom,” “AIDS,” “OPEC” and “NAFTA,” which can be pronounced as if they were proper words. This is most vividly seen in an acronym like “laser,” which today is nearly always written in lowercase. Acronyms contain less information than the full term and tend not to trigger spontaneous associations; this also makes them ambiguous and therefore vulnerable to misuse.

*Newspeak words

*Basic principles of newspeak (short summary)

The Party barrages its subjects with psychological stimuli designed to overwhelm the mind’s capacity for independent thought. The giant telescreen in every citizen’s room blasts a constant stream of propaganda designed to make the failures and shortcomings of the Party appear to be triumphant successes. The telescreens also monitor behavior—everywhere they go, citizens are continuously reminded, especially by means of the omnipresent signs reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” that the authorities are scrutinizing them. The Party undermines family structure by inducting children into an organization called the Junior Spies, which brainwashes and encourages them to spy on their parents and report any instance of disloyalty to the Party. The Party also forces individuals to suppress their sexual desires, treating sex as merely a procreative duty whose end is the creation of new Party members. The Party then channels people’s pent-up frustration and emotion into intense, ferocious displays of hatred against the Party’s political enemies. Many of these enemies have been invented by the Party expressly for this purpose.

The idea of “doublethink” emerges as an important consequence of the Party’s massive campaign of large-scale psychological manipulation. Simply put, doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at the same time. As the Party’s mind-control techniques break down an individual’s capacity for independent thought, it becomes possible for that individual to believe anything that the Party tells them, even while possessing information that runs counter to what they are being told. At the Hate Week rally, for instance, the Party shifts its diplomatic allegiance, so the nation it has been at war with suddenly becomes its ally, and its former ally becomes its new enemy. When the Party speaker suddenly changes the nation he refers to as an enemy in the middle of his speech, the crowd accepts his words immediately, and is ashamed to find that it has made the wrong signs for the event. In the same way, people are able to accept the Party ministries’ names, though they contradict their functions: the Ministry of Plenty oversees economic shortages, the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth conducts propaganda and historical revisionism, and the Ministry of Love is the center of the Party’s operations of torture and punishment.

Just in order to understand better what doublethink means, it is necessary to give an example like “blackwhite”. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink.

The same happens at the end of the novel, when the protagonist does not believe in the Party and the members make them a brainwash and he finally says that he believes but it is not true. For them, it is not enough to say that you believe on the Party, Actually you have to believe it, to be sure that you love it, even although it means to betray what you previously thought.

It could be said that Doublethink is an integral concept of George Orwell’sdystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and the word doublethink is part of Newspeak.

Orwell explains that the Party could not protect its iron power without degrading its people with constant propaganda. Yet, knowledge of this brutal deception, even within the Inner Party itself, could lead to collapse of the State from within. Though Nineteen Eighty-Four is most famous for the Party’s pervasive surveillance of everyday life, this control means that the population of Oceania—all of it, including the ruling élite—could be controlled and manipulated merely through the alteration of everyday thought and language. Newspeak is the method for controlling thought through language; doublethink is the method of directly controlling thought.

Newspeak incorporates doublethink, as it contains many words that create assumed associations between contradictory meanings, especially true of fundamentally important words such as good and evil; right and wrong; truth and falsehood; justice and injustice.

In the case of workers at the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth, doublethink means being able to falsify public records, and then believe in the new history that they, themselves, had just written. As revealed in Goldstein’s Book, the Ministry’s name is itself an example of doublethink: the Ministry of Truth is really concerned with lies. The other ministries of Airstrip One are similarly named: the Ministry of Peace is concerned with war, the Ministry of Love is concerned with torture and the Ministry of Plenty is concerned with starvation.

Moreover, doublethink’s self-deception allows the Party to maintain huge goals and realistic expectations: If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes. Thus, each Party member could be a credulous pawn, but would never lack relevant information. The Party is both fanatical and well-informed, thus unlikely either to “ossify” or “grow soft” and collapse. Doublethink would avoid a “killing the messenger” attitude that could disturb the Command structure. Thus, doublethink is the key tool of self-discipline for the Party, complementing the state-imposed discipline of propaganda, and the police state. Together, these tools hid the government’s evil not just from the people, but from the government itself, but without the confusion and misinformation associated with primitive totalitarian regimes.

Doublethink is critical in allowing the Party to know what its true goals are without recoiling from them, avoiding the conflation of a regime’s egalitarian propaganda with its true purpose.

Paradoxically, during the long and harrowing process in which Winston is systematically tortured and broken, he contemplates using doublethink as the ultimate recourse in his rebellion—i.e. to let himself become consciously a loyal party member while letting his hatred of the party remain an unconscious presence deep in his mind, and let it surface again at the very moment of his execution so that “the bullet would enter a free mind” which the Thought Police would not have a chance to tamper with again.

Since 1949 (when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published), the word doublethink has become synonymous with relieving cognitive dissonance by ignoring the contradiction between two world views—or even of deliberately seeking to relieve cognitive dissonance. Some schools of psychotherapy, such as cognitive therapy, encourage people to alter their own thoughts as a way of treating different psychological maladies (see cognitive distortions).

Orwell’s “Doublethink” is also credited with having inspired the commonly used “Doubletalk“, which itself does not appear in Orwell’s book.

And for an excellent overview of political language and doublespeak in general, Michele Damon, a technical writing graduate from UCF has created a Doublespeak site that takes a very comprehensive close look at the misuse of language to corrupt and mislead thought.


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I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. Thus, I was able to read it at the age of nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals, sort of like Wind in the Willows. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book - the child's version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead.

So I gobbled up the adventures of Napoleon and Snowball, the smart, greedy, upwardly mobile pigs, and Squealer the spin-doctor, and Boxer the noble but thick-witted horse, and the easily led, slogan-chanting sheep, without making any connection with historical events.

To say that I was horrified by this book is an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust. I cried my eyes out when Boxer the horse had an accident and was carted off to be made into dog food, instead of being given the quiet corner of the pasture he'd been promised.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing to me, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for since. In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what's really going on.

The pigs browbeat the others with ideology, then twist that ideology to suit their own purposes: their language games were evident to me even at that age. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels - Christianity, Socialism, Islam, Democracy, Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good, the works - that are definitive, but the acts done in their name.

I could see, too, how easily those who have toppled an oppressive power take on its trappings and habits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right to warn us that democracy is the hardest form of government to maintain; Orwell knew that to the marrow of his bones, because he had seen it in action.

How quickly the precept "All Animals Are Equal" is changed into "All Animals Are Equal, but Some Are More Equal Than Others". What oily concern the pigs show for the welfare of the other animals, a concern that disguises their contempt for those they are manipulating.

With what alacrity do they put on the once-despised uniforms of the tyrannous humans they have overthrown, and learn to use their whips. How self-righteously they justify their actions, helped by the verbal web-spinning of Squealer, their nimble-tongued press agent, until all power is in their trotters, pretence is no longer necessary, and they rule by naked force.

A revolution often means only that: a revolving, a turn of the wheel of fortune, by which those who were at the bottom mount to the top, and assume the choice positions, crushing the former power-holders beneath them. We should beware of all those who plaster the landscape with large portraits of themselves, like the evil pig, Napoleon.

Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular Emperor-Has-No-Clothes books of the 20th century, and it got George Orwell into trouble. People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all that figured out at the age of nine, of course - not in any conscious way. But we learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm has a very clear pattern.

Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. Thus, I read it in paperback a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again: it was right up there among my favourite books, along with Wuthering Heights.

At the same time, I absorbed its two companions, Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I was keen on all three of them, but I understood Darkness At Noon to be a tragedy about events that had already happened, and Brave New World to be a satirical comedy, with events that were unlikely to unfold in exactly that way. (Orgy-Porgy, indeed.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four struck me as more realistic, probably because Winston Smith was more like me - a skinny person who got tired a lot and was subjected to physical education under chilly conditions (this was a feature of my school) - and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen-Eighty-Four is best read when you are an adolescent: most adolescents feel like that.)

I sympathised particularly with Winston's desire to write his forbidden thoughts down in a deliciously tempting, secret blank book: I had not yet started to write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers, because it's this scribbling of his - along with illicit sex, another item with considerable allure for a teenager of the 50s - that gets Winston into such a mess.

Animal Farm charts the progress of an idealistic movement of liberation towards a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a despotic tyrant; Nineteen Eighty-Four describes what it's like to live entirely within such a system. Its hero, Winston, has only fragmentary memories of what life was like before the present dreadful regime set in: he's an orphan, a child of the collectivity. His father died in the war that has ushered in the repression, and his mother has disappeared, leaving him with only the reproachful glance she gave him as he betrayed her over a chocolate bar - a small betrayal that acts both as the key to Winston's character and as a precursor to the many other betrayals in the book.

The government of Airstrip One, Winston's "country", is brutal. The constant surveillance, the impossibility of speaking frankly to anyone, the looming, ominous figure of Big Brother, the regime's need for enemies and wars - fictitious though both may be - which are used to terrify the people and unite them in hatred, the mind-numbing slogans, the distortions of language, the destruction of what has really happened by stuffing any record of it down the Memory Hole - these made a deep impression on me. Let me re-state that: they frightened the stuffing out of me. Orwell was writing a satire about Stalin's Soviet Union, a place about which I knew very little at the age of 14, but he did it so well that I could imagine such things happening anywhere.

There is no love interest in Animal Farm, but there is in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston finds a soulmate in Julia; outwardly a devoted Party fanatic, secretly a girl who enjoys sex and makeup and other spots of decadence. But the two lovers are discovered, and Winston is tortured for thought-crime - inner disloyalty to the regime.

He feels that if he can only remain faithful in his heart to Julia, his soul will be saved - a romantic concept, though one we are likely to endorse. But like all absolutist governments and religions, the Party demands that every personal loyalty be sacrificed to it, and replaced with an absolute loyalty to Big Brother.

Confronted with his worst fear in the dreaded Room 101, where a nasty device involving a cage-full of starving rats can be fitted to the eyes, Winston breaks: "Don't do it to me," he pleads, "do it to Julia." (This sentence has become shorthand in our household for the avoidance of onerous duties. Poor Julia - how hard we would make her life if she actually existed. She'd have to be on a lot of panel discussions, for instance.)

After his betrayal of Julia, Winston becomes a handful of malleable goo. He truly believes that two and two make five, and that he loves Big Brother. Our last glimpse of him is sitting drink-sodden at an outdoor cafe, knowing he's a dead man walking and having learned that Julia has betrayed him, too, while he listens to a popular refrain: "Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me ..."

Orwell has been accused of bitterness and pessimism - of leaving us with a vision of the future in which the individual has no chance, and where the brutal, totalitarian boot of the all-controlling Party will grind into the human face, for ever.

But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last chapter in the book, an essay on Newspeak - the doublethink language concocted by the regime. By expurgating all words that might be troublesome - "bad" is no longer permitted, but becomes "double-plus-ungood" - and by making other words mean the opposite of what they used to mean - the place where people get tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building where the past is destroyed is the Ministry of Information - the rulers of Airstrip One wish to make it literally impossible for people to think straight.
However, the essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit for.

Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life - in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's Tale. By that time I was 44, and I had learned enough about real despotisms - through the reading of history, travel, and my membership of Amnesty International - so that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone.

The majority of dystopias - Orwell's included - have been written by men, and the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have been either sexless automatons or rebels who have defied the sex rules of the regime. They have acted as the temptresses of the male protagonists, however welcome this temptation may be to the men themselves.

Thus Julia; thus the cami-knicker-wearing, orgy-porgy seducer of the Savage in Brave New World; thus the subversive femme fatale of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 seminal classic, We. I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view - the world according to Julia, as it were. However, this does not make The Handmaid's Tale a "feminist dystopia", except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will always be considered "feminist" by those who think women ought not to have these things.

The 20th century could be seen as a race between two versions of man-made hell - the jackbooted state totalitarianism of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four, and the hedonistic ersatz paradise of Brave New World, where absolutely everything is a consumer good and human beings are engineered to be happy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that Brave New World had won - from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and all we would have to do was go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a pill or two when depression set in.

But with 9/11, all that changed. Now it appears we face the prospect of two contradictory dystopias at once - open markets, closed minds - because state surveillance is back again with a vengeance. The torturer's dreaded Room 101 has been with us for millennia. The dungeons of Rome, the Inquisition, the Star Chamber, the Bastille, the proceedings of General Pinochet and of the junta in Argentina - all have depended on secrecy and on the abuse of power. Lots of countries have had their versions of it - their ways of silencing troublesome dissent.

Democracies have traditionally defined themselves by, among other things - openness and the rule of law. But now it seems that we in the west are tacitly legitimising the methods of the darker human past, upgraded technologically and sanctified to our own uses, of course. For the sake of freedom, freedom must be renounced. To move us towards the improved world - the utopia we're promised - dystopia must first hold sway.

It's a concept worthy of doublethink. It's also, in its ordering of events, strangely Marxist. First the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which lots of heads must roll; then the pie-in-the-sky classless society, which oddly enough never materialises. Instead, we just get pigs with whips.

I often ask myself: what would George Orwell have to say about it?

Quite a lot.

· This is an edited extract from Margaret Atwood's contribution to BBC Radio 3's Twenty Minutes: The Orwell Essays series, broadcast tonight at 8.05pm. Roy Hattersley's and John Carey's essays will be broadcast at the same time on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Margaret Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and Crake, is published by Bloomsbury.

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