Software that encourages you to censor yourself? Orwell warned us about that

Software that encourages you to censor yourself? Orwell warned us about that

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression of the world-view and mental habits proper…but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.

This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.

George Orwell, ‘1984’

The cultural impact of ‘1984’ is such that the novel is wielded like the cosh in the hands of one of the Ministry of Love’s interrogators. References to it are littered through both pop culture – see Big Brother which turned the omni-present overlord into a cheeky reality TV trope – to every discussion of privacy and surveillance – from Edward Snowden to Facebook.

But, just like ‘Minority Report’, which has also gained cultural ubiquity as a way of understanding our present and future, ‘1984’ is powerful because things in our real world do often seem to mirror Orwell’s prescience.

One example is Alex, a project that my colleague Abhi wrote about earlier. The idea is that as you type, the app flags words that might be offensive and suggests alternatives.

For social media managers dealing with Twitter’s hair trigger, that might seem appealing, but to those of us deeply concerned by the constriction of language and the hardline policing of speech, it’s a problem.

In the end, political correctness is, as Peter Hitchens says, “an effective weapon because it’s based most fundamentally on getting people to behave with good manners towards other people. It’s its other implications where it moves in making certain things unsayable and, therefore, certain thoughts unthinkable, where it becomes a malign influence.”

Of course we should all strive to treat others with respect but no one has the right not to be offended. “I’m offended,” is often the battle cry of the entitled cry baby. There is a difference between the merely offensive and the hateful.

The problem I have with seemingly laudable ideas like the Alex app is that they push us further towards a world where particular words are banned outright.

That’s a world where Chris Rock’s sketch on black people’s approach to describing their own communities would be unsayable, a world where N.W.A.’s Fuck Tha Police becomes Strongly Disagree With Law Enforcement (But Do Not Use Any Language That Might Upset Them).

From a similar period, Ice Cube’s ‘No Vaseline’ is ‘offensive,’ but it’s also an incredibly powerful piece of art. The two states can exist simultaneously.

I’ll close with where I started: Orwell. In Newspeak the word ‘free’ still exists but it is only used in the sense of not being burdened by a particular condition – “the dog is free from lice” – with the meaning that refers to personal liberty – “free choice” or “free will” – is obliterated.

The best tool of state censorship is people who have been taught to practice self-censorship. Quite frankly, fuck that.

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