The "Not Me" Myth: Orwell and the Mind

Margaret Thaler Singer Ph.D.
Emeritus Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley

Orwell, as others before him such as Defoe, Zamyatin, Huxley and Jack London, wrote about the "negative utopias." These were places in which man's most central capacities for reasoning creatively, scientifically and compassionately were gradually curbed and eventually stifled. Not only in "1984" but in his essay on Politics and the English Language, Orwell emphasized the power of words. Words represent thoughts and without the capability to express those thoughts, people lost access to them.

`Writers before Orwell prophesied centralized governments using torture, drugs and mysterious esoteric techniques as the feared methods by which man might be controlled. Orwell's genius was in sensing that combinations of social and psychological techniques are easier, more effective, and cheaper than the gun-at-the-head method of coercion. Social and psychological persuasion are also less likely to attract attention and thus are unlikely to mobilize opposition early and easily from those being manipulated. Orwell reasoned that if a government could control all media and communication, meanwhile forcing citizens to speak in a politically- controlled jargon, this would blunt independent thinking. If thought could be controlled, then rebellious actions against a regime could be prevented.

As 1984 begins, various totalitarian governments control and censor the media and squelch dissenting individuals. Perhaps more ominously and subtly here and elsewhere in the world, there are mini-versions of Orwell's Big Brother, Newspeak and Thought Police. Since the early 1970's there has been a burgeoning not of governments, but of independent entrepreneurial groups going into the mind manipulation and personality-change business. Myriads of faddist, cultists, quacks and "new age" and "new-movement" groups have emerged using Orwellian mind manipulation techniques. The groups recruit the naive, the unaffiliated, the trusting and the altruistic. They promise intellectual, spiritual and self-actualization utopias whereas the pied pipers of the past promised primarily social and political new worlds. The New Age pied pipers offer pathways to development, enlightenment and egalitarianism. Many later subject their followers to mind-numbing treatments that block thinking and subjugate free will in a context of a strictly enforced hierarchy.

Just as most soldiers believe bullets will hit only others, not themselves, most citizens like to think that their own minds and thought processes are invulnerable. " Other people can be manipulated, but not me," they declare. People like to think that their opinions, values and ideas are inviolate and totally self-regulated. They may admit grudgingly that they are influenced slightly by advertising. Beyond that, they want to preserve a myth in which other persons are weak-minded and easily influenced, but they are strong-minded. People cherish a fantasy that manipulators confront, browbeat and argue people into doing their bidding. They envision Big Brother coming in storm-trooper boots, holding guns to heads and forcing persons to change their beliefs, alter their personalities, and accept new ideologies. Orwell drew on the wisdom of the ages -- most manipulation is subtle and covert. Orwell envisioned the evolution of an insidious, but successful mind and opinion manipulator. He would appear as a smiling, seemingly beneficent Big Brother. But instead of one Big Brother, we see hordes of Big Brothers in the world today.

Orwell's predictions have not totally, and perhaps may never completely occur because of the wondrous properties of the human mind when it remains free to reason. But his ideas serve as warnings of the extent to which people's thinking can be influenced.

The myth of mind invulnerability needs to be examined over and over to prevent Orwell's 1984 world from happening. In just the past half-century, the world has seen numerous examples of the extent to which people can be influenced. A number of these have been California-based phenomena. In the 1930's we saw the Russian purge trials, in the late 1940's the world witnessed the Chinese Thought Reform programs change the beliefs and behavior of the largest nation in the world. The 1950's brought the Korean War in which North Korea's intensive indoctrination of United Nations prisoners of war showed the extent to which captors would go in an attempt to win converts to their political cause. Later in the same decade Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of the Catholic Church in Hungary, and a man of tremendous personal forcefulness, strength of convictions, and faith in God, ended up being so manipulated and processed by his Russian captors that he -- as had the purge trial victims of the 1930's-- both falsely confessed and falsely accused his colleagues. As he later looked back on the manipulation and processing done to him, he wrote in his memoirs, "Without being aware of what was happening, I had become another person." These extremes of social and psychological manipulations of thought and conduct are often disregarded by Americans because the events occurred for away and could be dismissed as merely foreign propaganda, and political acts. The reasoning was based on the "not me myth" -- not in our land could such happen. Then we had to begin looking at certain events that were occurring the California and see that extremes of influence and manipulation were possible here. Charles Manson manipulated a band of middle-class youths into believing his mad versions of "Helter Skelter" and under his influence they carried out multiple vicious murders. Later Patricia Hearst, a kidnap victim, was psychologically and otherwise abused by a rag-tag group of Bay Area revolutionaries. They used Orwellian mind manipulations as well as gun-at-the-head methods to coerce her compliance. Then in 1978, Jim Jones manipulated 912 persons into history's largest mass murder-suicide phenomenon. Since him the world has seen other cult leaders such as David Koresh in Texas, Luc Jouret with followers in Canada, France and Switzerland lead their followers to fiery deaths. Hundreds of other cult leaders have gathered far more followers than Jones by promising new psychological and spiritual utopias. They have succeeded by combining various ages-old psychological and social persuasion techniques in an atmosphere os Madison Avenue soft-sell approaches. Because most of the followers have been youthful or poor, little attention and credence has been given to reports from ex-members, families and friends who report the effects of the techniques of manipulation used by the groups. Representative Leo J. Ryan understood the manipulation phenomena people were describing to him and he lost his life in a Guyanese jungle investigating how Jim Jones "bent minds."

Were George Orwell alive, he might be intrigued with the variety of situations in which mind-bending and thought manipulation techniques are applied today. His genius centered on seeing how language, not physical force would be used to manipulate minds. In fact the growing evidence in the behavioral sciences is that a smiling Big Brother has greater power to influence thought and decision-making that a visibly threatening person. As Orwell's last words in his prophetic book stated: "He loved Big Brother."

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