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The Origins of the Thought Police—and Why They Scare Us

The Origins of the Thought Police—and Why They Scare Us

In a sense, “1984” is largely a book about the human capacity to maintain a grip on the truth in the face of propaganda and power.

There are a lot of unpleasant things in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Spying screens. Torture and propaganda. Victory Gin and Victory Coffee always sounded particularly dreadful. And there is Winston Smith’s varicose ulcer, apparently a symbol of his humanity (or something), which always seems to be “throbbing.” Gross.

None of this sounds very enjoyable, but it’s not the worst thing in 1984. To me, the most terrifying part was that you couldn’t keep Big Brother out of your head.

Unlike other 20th-century totalitarians, the authoritarians in 1984 aren’t that interested in controlling behavior or speech. They do, of course, but it’s only as a means to an end. Their real goal is to control the gray matter between the ears.

“When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will,” O’Brien (the bad guy) tells the protagonist Winston Smith near the end of the book.

We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him.

Big Brother’s tool for doing this is the Thought Police, aka the ThinkPol, who are assigned to root out and punish unapproved thoughts. We see how this works when Winston’s neighbor Parsons, an obnoxious Party sycophant, is reported to the Thought Police by his own child, who heard him commit a thought crime while talking in his sleep.

“It was my little daughter,” Parsons tells Winston when asked who it was who denounced him. “She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh?”

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