Chambers: doub’le-think the faculty of simultaneously harbouring two conflicting beliefs – coined by George Orwell in his Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Doublethink is not the same as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. But there is no psychological conflict in the faculty of doublethink. Practitioners of doublethink genuinely believe both of the contradictory opinions they may express. I venture to say Mr Blair’s apologia pro the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as expressed in his memoir A Journey (Random House, 2010) is an example of cognitive dissonance. You sense his pain. But here is an example of doublethink:
Brexit means Brexit.
You might suppose that a better example of doublethink, and a more obvious pairing of conflicting beliefs, would be “Brexit means Remain.” But there is a subtlety here which becomes evident when you put the three word mantra into context. (Incidentally, I believe I can make this argument quite independently of any position I may hold as either Brexiteer or Remainer. Maybe that is my own lapse into doublethink.) In 2016, Mr Cameron campaigned for Remain, and when he lost the argument, he resigned the premiership, pointing out that he could hardly be the person best placed to lead the forthcoming negotiations with the EU. His resignation was universally accepted as right and proper. Was it not bizarre, therefore, that he should be succeeded as PM by Mrs May, herself a Remainer? If you sincerely iterate, and reiterate, “Brexit means Brexit” and then sincerely negotiate to remain within the club in all but name, you are practising the virtuoso high-wire act of doublethink.
You can only maintain the doublethink state of mind if you have the capacity to close your mind to reality, because, like it or not, the truth is out there. A corollary to “Brexit means Brexit” is that there will be a border between the United Kingdom and the European Union. This includes a land border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. You can make it as virtual and as “seamless” as you like, but it will still be there. There are two potential solutions to this problem. One is that the UK changes her mind and stays within the EU. The other is that the island of Ireland unites, and the United Kingdom breaks up. Any other solution is going to be a compromise, a fudge, very complicated, and very difficult to enact. Grappling with a problem which is insoluble is very stressful – it causes cognitive dissonance – unless you have mastered the art of doublethink. Then you are not stressed, because reality doesn’t touch you.
Like Brexit means Brexit, there are three pithy political mantras in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the slogans of the Party that are doublethink archetypes:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
To refresh my memory, I went back to Orwell’s dystopian nightmare and reread The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, the forbidden volume Winston Smith reads just before he is arrested by the Thought Police. It is chilling, because Orwell predicted with uncanny prescience so many aspects of the world in which we now live.
Orwell’s world is divided into three superstates: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. In Oceania, America has absorbed Britain and the British Empire. In Eurasia, Russia has absorbed Europe. In Eastasia, China has absorbed Southeast Asia. These three superpowers are in a state of perpetual war with one another, although the alliances and antagonisms can change.
The internal structures of the three superpowers are essentially identical, though unconnected. Society is stratified into the High, the Middle, and the Low. In Oceania, the High, that is, the elite, is the Inner Party; the Middle is the Outer Party; the Low is made up of the proles. The object of the High is to perpetuate its own existence; the object of the Middle is to attain the position of the High; the Low’s sole objective (hardly recognised as an objective) is to subsist. This stratification is not the same as the ancient English class system, because it is not based on patronage and inheritance. In fact, Orwell describes the new aristocracy as comprising bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organisers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists and professional politicians.
The society is rigidly controlled. It is impossible to escape surveillance. Aberrant thought is as criminal as aberrant behaviour, perhaps more so. In fact, the state is dedicated to rendering aberrant thought impossible, by the creation of the official language Newspeak, a language devoid of nuance, richness, or abstraction.
Well, are we not more than halfway there? We live in the age of the strong man. We in the UK are detaching ourselves from Europe and wooing Mr Trump – Oceania. Mr Putin seeks to extend his influence in Eastern Europe – Eurasia. China is emerging as a global superpower – Eastasia. Populist leaders encourage xenophobia and paranoia. Orwell called this “The Hate”. Hate is alive and well. You only need to look at the level of discourse, and the baseness of expression, on “social media”. What is Twitter, if not Newspeak? The digital age has made surveillance universal. Big Data is an engine for human manipulation utilised by The High, that is, by Oligarchs.
On Monday July 16th, Mr Trump met Mr Putin in Helsinki. He was asked whether he thought Russia had interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election. Mr Trump said, “(President Putin) said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” The US Intelligence Services, and indeed US politicians on both sides of Congress, were very upset that the POTUS should prefer Mr Putin’s word over theirs. So on Tuesday July 17th Mr Trump said he had misspoke. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.’” Perhaps Mr Trump picked up a penchant for the double negative from the Isle of Lewis and his mother. The double negative is the idiom of the Gael, who goes to the theatre, fumbles in his pocket, and mutters in Gaelic, “I will not believe I have not forgotten the tickets.” Or should that be, “I will not believe I have not remembered the tickets?” Whatever.
Would be, wouldn’t be… What’s the difference? This apparent exercise in Helsinki damage limitation seemed to leave the POTUS completely unfazed. That is because he does not suffer from cognitive dissonance.