The Meaning of War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength in Orwell's 1984
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength— George Orwell, 1984
In the book 1984, these words are presented in Chapter One. They are the official slogans of the entity known only as “The Party,” which seems to consist of those in charge of the society. The words are written in enormous letters on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth, which confuses the reader even more. These obvious contradictions written on a government building for a department called the Ministry of Truth suggests that the author is trying to convey that somehow these statements are true for the society he has created.
Orwell clearly opened his book in this way on purpose in order to introduce the reader to the concept of doublethink, which is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind simultaneously. The Party establishes this ability in it’s citizens by undermining their individuality, independence and autonomy and creating an environment of constant fear through propaganda. In this way the Party can make citizens accept and believe anything they tell them, even if it is entirely illogical.
The book is filled with similar contradictions to the ones seen in the opening quote. For example, the Ministry of Peace oversees war, the Ministry of Love carries out torture of political prisoners, and the Ministry of Truth is in charge of changing the content in history books to represent the Party’s beliefs. These contradictions keeps the citizens constantly off balance, so they are never sure of themselves or each other.
The fact that the national motto of Oceania is just as contradictory as these examples underscores the success of the Party’s campaign of psychological mind control. The government has become able to maintain the apparent veracity of these slogans because of their reality in the society of Oceania.
War is Peace
The first slogan is probably the most contradictory of the three. How war and peace can exist at the same time for the same nation seems like an impossibility. While some may say the slogan suggests that in order to end up with peace, war may be necessary this is not what the motto says. It suggests that war and peace occur simultaneously and one is equated with the other.
Introducing the motto that is the most difficult to understand given the two opposing conditions first, is intended to introduce the concept of Doublethink early on. That this concept is introduced close to the beginning of the book suggests its significance for the society described therein. This motto also underscores a common conflict that is presented throughout the book, that of people struggling to define the nature of reality within the confines of Party rule.
The motto War is Peace, taken separately, indicates how having a shared enemy helps the people of Oceania remain on a common course and serves to unite them. It gives them something to worry about that is external to the country while allowing it to remain vague given that it is happening somewhere else, and thus hard to disprove. This mentality is put in place for the benefit of the Party, since providing the people with a common enemy gives them someone other than the government to blame for their problems, making them easier to rule.
A state of constant war demonstrates that people are sacrificing for the greater good of the society, pledging their effort and money to the war, and devotion themselves to their country meaning the government. From the Party's point of view, all of this is good in that the more people invest in and commit to their nation or government, the fewer problems they will perceive since this would result in cognitive dissonance.
This saying focuses the people's attention preventing them from being consciously aware of the obvious problems in their own society where they are manipulated and controlled based on the will of the government. If people find themselves having thoughts counter to accepted government rhetoric they can quickly distract themselves by thinking about the war and worrying over the possibility of attack.
While this mentality may seem impossible today, it still occurs and can be seen when examining the actions of NATO. Engaging in what they term preemptive wars, NATO asserts that they can prevent war by starting it. This is clearly a or paradox.
Freedom is Slavery
The second motto, Freedom is Slavery, is related to the idea communicated to the people that anyone who become independent of society’s control is bound to be unsuccessful. By this rational an entire society that is free without the necessary constraints will result in chaos and the breakdown of the society.
Since the slogan is commutative, if freedom is slavery then slavery is freedom. Here, the Party communicates the message that those who are willing to subjugate themselves to the collective will or the will of the society which by definition is the will of the Party, will be freed from danger and wanting what they can’t have. Society defines what is good, what is acceptable, what is desirable. Those who focus on those things and on fulfilling the will of the society will be free from despair and will lack nothing, at least nothing that society, or the Party, condones.
The Party embodies the idea of a paternalistic structure for society and the individuals in it. Hence, the idea of the Government surveilling it’s citizens is presented under the guise of “Big Brother.” Adherence to the ideals and rules are ensured by this individual presented as a family member, who has only the best interests of the people in mind.
In order to survive in this society, the citizens must ignore the clear reality that Big Brother is certainly not a family member showing concern, but is rather the government spying on everything it’s citizens do in order to control them. The Party even interprets facial gestures and nonverbal communication and the people can be tortured as political prisoners because of behavior interpreted as subversive.
Ignorance is Strength
There is also the need for the citizens to subvert their will and their awareness. This is the only way to accept the contradictions the government puts forth. They therefore bury the truth and accept irrationality such as is demonstrated in the three slogans. Yet the ability to hold opposites in their mind demonstrates ignorance. They turn over their voice in the way the country is governed to the Party who makes all the decisions for them. One must have as much information as possible to make good decisions and conversely when lacking adequate information one is less likely to feel wronged by not taking part in decision making.
Ignorance is therefore strength as it is the willing ignorance of the people that maintains the government's power and seeming coherence of the society. People in Oceania ignore obvious contradictions and fail to investigate inconsistencies such as the non-existent war and with whom they are at war from one minute to the next. It is only through ignorance that people can find the strength to live in a totalitarian society where the government oppresses them even while communicating to them how lucky they are. It is the age old fallacy of what you don't know can't hurt you.
Themes of the Novel
When first reading these three slogans, most people likely scratch their heads wondering at the seeming conflict that rises from equating two opposites. Yet the idea of contradiction relates to the themes of the novel. In particular, specific themes include a shifting definition of freedom and enslavement, the nature of trust and true loyalty, and what reality is and how it is affected by appearances. All of these themes are somewhat contradictory as well.
Shifting Definitions of Freedom and Enslavement
One idea presented in Orwell's book, 1984 is expressed in the saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The government has grown to become omnipotent, writing its own version of reality, changing history by changing the content in history books, and making the people too fearful to think in ways that would call any of this into question.
The Party is so powerful that when it says 2 + 2 = 5, the people accept this and come to mindlessly believe it. When the party declares that Oceania is at war with Eurasia, distributing endless propaganda against the nation the people accept this is how it always has been. When the government then says Oceania is at war with Eastasia and has always been at war with them, the people allow their reality to be changed accepting this as true and accepting that Eurasia has always been their ally.
Yet the people do not perceive any of these contradictions as a type of enslavement, in particular, the enslavement of their minds. They willingly let the Party tell them what to think, what to believe, what to value and how to act. They allow the government to change these ideals whenever they choose, believing the new propaganda as fact and repressing the previous reality.
The people must be aware on some level that they are accepting clear opposites, reversals of what is presented as fact, and revisions of history. Yet they have come to accept this as a small price to pay for safety from the feared enemy and war visited on them directly. Even this though, must be something that is repressed given the contradictions of who is the enemy and who is an ally from one minute to the next.
It is almost as if the government sometimes changes reality just because they can. There is no need to change a fictional enemy as the entire war is made up anyway. So creating a new contradiction for the people to believe seems sometimes to be done just because the Party is able to do so. It is apparent that the government has come not just to rule completely but has reached a point it takes pleasure in enslaving the people so they do, say and believe whatever their master tells them. The nature of the relationship between the Party and its citizens very much has the familiar feel of slavery. The people must serve the government, and any attempt to “escape” with independent thought is brutally punished. The people are valued only in so much as they benefit the government.
In 1984, Winston and Julia secretly attempt to escape from the mind control of the government in the room in which they meet above Mr. Charington’s shop. Yet the room holds a hidden telescreen and Mr. Charington is actually a member of the thought police reinforcing the idea that there is no escape from slavery. The notion of freedom cannot be maintained as Winston and Julia are attempting to define it. They cannot be free just because they remove themselves from their normal environment and go to a different room that is still housed within the totalitarian state.
As the book comes to a close, WInston’s idea of freedom has changed. He no longer has a sense of individual self, he has in essence become selfless, a part of the greater society that is not just compliant with the Party’s dictates but that wants to be compliant. He loves Big Brother and has no difficulty rejoicing when he hears about the victory in Africa. It then states that he slipped back into a blissful dream where he perceives himself to have a soul white as snow as he confesses and implicates people.
The novel ends saying that the long hoped for bullet entered Winston’s brain. This does not mean he actually died but that the independently minded Winston whose idea of freedom was freedom from Big Brother and the dictates of the Party died. The fact that this was presented as longed for suggests that Winston was willing to trade all that he had fought for and accept being subservient, controlled and manipulated.
In reality, in today’s complex world, it can sometimes feel as if having others take responsibility for making decisions for us would be freeing. We wouldn’t have to struggle with different options, accept the consequences of bad decisions and situations we can’t control. For different people, different degrees of autonomy, responsibility and consequences contribute to the way freedom is defined. Some may feel free when they have more control over their life even if it means they have more responsibility while for others the stress of responsibility hampers their sense of freedom. More choices may be construed as freedom or numerous options may paralyze some individuals limiting their sense of freedom. Thus, freedom may be perceived of in different ways and there are individual differences regarding the definition.
Trust, Loyalty and Betrayal
The twisted nature of trust, loyalty and betrayal is a recurrent theme in the novel 1984. Winston is betrayed by Mr. Charrington, O'Brien, and Julia. He betrays Julia as well as himself. Yet the novel explores the nature of trust and how it plays into loyalty and betrayal. Without trust there can be no loyalty or betrayal, and trust is almost non-existent in the novel. The characters can never know if they are being observed either in person or through a telescreen.
It is also impossible to know who is a member of the thought police and anyone can betray others by turning them into the Party. Even those closest to each other such as spouses or parents and children may betray each other. Yet this is what is expected in the society and it is accepted that people can be made to confess anything through torture which is routinely carried out.
Prior to their arrest and torture, Winston and Julia believe that the only true betrayal is the betrayal of the heart, as this is the only kind of betrayal they have control over. They learn that they actually have no control over this type of betrayal either, as in the end they have no choice but to betray each other and themselves. Initially what establishes their loyalty to each other is trust in something outside of the Party and Big Brother.
Yet this would be construed as a thought crime and the Party accuses all thought criminals of being traitors who betray the society. They are not traitors, though, until the Party makes them traitors through torture, when they confess to betraying the entire society and are forced to further betray anyone toward whom they may feel loyalty. The Party seeks to eliminate potential betrayal at the hands of its citizens by getting rid of all trust and loyalty related to anything outside the Party as it’s represented by the public image of Big Brother.
So the contradiction exists whereby trust and loyalty to other citizens is deemed bad while trust and loyalty related to the Party is deemed good, and betrayal of the Party is deemed bad while betrayal of others is deemed good. Yet the irony is that when all loyalty towards other citizens is destroyed, no true loyalty toward the Party can exist either. However, loyalty based on fear and manipulation is satisfactory to the Party.
Winston believes that despite knowing they will turn against each other and tell the Party what they want to hear about each others sins, as long as they continue to love each other this will not be betrayal. This is an idealistic and naive viewpoint since he clearly tells Julia that once they are captured there will be nothing they can do for each other when the truth is that each can remain loyal to the other by not giving information true or made up that will cause the other person more trouble. When you cannot put another over yourself or stop yourself from saying anything that harms the other whether it is true or not, not only can there be no trust and thus no loyalty there can be no love.
The Appearance of Reality and True Reality
In the novel, O’Brian tries to teach Winston about the nature of reality under the Party, through torture, manipulation and fear. Winston attempts to hold onto his belief that there is a true reality that cannot be controlled by the party especially in relation to the past which is already fixed and a part of people’s memories. O’Brian points out that the Party controls all documents as well as people’s thoughts so changing the account of the past in the historical record and alter memories means that the Party truly can control the past.
This absolute control leads to the assertion that Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. O’Brien is arguing that the Party’s version of the past is what people believe, so it is that account of the past that has the appearance of the truth, despite it having no basis in real experiences. This is related to the Party slogans in several ways.
O’Brian wants WInston to let go and allow himself to be torn down so he can be reconstructed as a citizen loyal to the party. This ties in to the reversal of the traditional idea of freedom and enslavement as it is only in allowing oneself to become enslaved by the Party, fully accepting it and it’s ideals, that one can get rid of the stress and strain involved in fighting against it.
When they accept the Party, they no longer have to worry about what to think, how to act or what to do with their lives. It is all done for them and they are free from the burden of self-determination. By waging a war against this human leaning toward self-determination they will find peace. The easiest way to do this is through ignorance which will provide them with the ability to accept anything the Party wants and thus is a strength as it allows them to be a model citizen and live free from the fear of being arrested and tortured by the thought police.
In today’s world we all too often fail to notice that we are allowing ourselves to be enslaved as well. Sometimes this is due to propaganda and the lack of alternative information that is easy to obtain. Other times it may be do to shear laziness and the failure to seek the truth or to let ourselves realize that we are contributing to our own slavery such as turning over personal information online without thinking twice.
We register brief outrage when learning of the governments intrusion into our private lives such as with hidden wires allowing them access to our mobile conversations and data. But we just as quickly let it go without demanding redress, with the excuse that we can’t do anything or that that the company in question must deal with it. We let government officials change reality with false facts and fake news and again give lip service to our anger and disbelief but allow them to remain in office saying that is what politicians do and we have to accept the bad with the good.
In other words. we are letting those who lead, those in power, define our reality, at least in part, by whatever will help them retain power as opposed to what is in our best interests. We accept propaganda that reverses itself similar to the war propaganda in 1984. For instance, whether Libya is our staunchest enemy or ally has depended on if there was benefit to one or the other at any point in time.
We can accept that a nation is our friends one day and our enemy the next, largely by allowing ourselves to remain ignorant and failing to learn everything we can about the situation before simply believing whatever position the government tells us to believe. We allow ourselves to be led to wage war on what we know to be reality based on collective memories of events rather than changing content in history books.
This may seem like peace since we don’t have to work to undercover the truth of situations, but it is taking the easy way out and allowing others to define the past, present and future. The only way to find true freedom, peace and strength is to not blindly accept whatever we are told in pursuit of keeping things simple and non-confrontational. Waging war against such automatic acceptance of manipulated reality is what will lead to true strength, the abandonment of ignorance and ultimate freedom and peace.