August 1, 2023
Quoting George Orwell is the kind of thing that people who haven’t read Orwell do. The term Orwellian is used by people who have not only not read him, but have latched on to some laundered idea of the themes of his work. They are not only misrepresenting him, but misrepresenting a misrepresentation. If it were true that the dead could spin in their graves, Orwell would solve the world’s energy crisis. He could power the Northern Hemisphere by reacting to the liberties taken with Nineteen Eighty-Four alone. Anyway. I have read him so you and he will have to forgive me for what I’m about to say.
One of the main themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the relentless eradication of nuance in language. Over time people should lose the vocabulary to express complex, ambiguous ideas, and the bounds of their knowledge will shrink along with it. This will not only make it impossible for them to have dangerous ideas and for knowledge to develop, they will internalise orthodoxy.
In Oceania, everything would be reduced to binaries. He described a world in which “all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged”. A world in which it wasn’t necessary to have words for “warm” and “cold,” because “every word in the language – could be negatived by adding the affix un-.” Unwarm.
We do not live in the brutal, oppressive world he describes, but our world shares some of its characteristics. We have lost some of our ability to ascribe good intentions to the people with whom we disagree. The thought terminating cliches that abound in the media narrow our intellectual horizons and blunt our curiosity.
This is happening for very important issues and more parochial ones such as conversations about work and workplaces. Hybrid Working is Here to Stay. Return to Office. The Great Resignation. The Office Must be Worth the Commute. People throw these notions around as if they are profound. Yet in my experience, when you ask them what they mean, often the conversation ends there. Any appeal for nuance is treated as a heresy.
So to all of those people who keep using those thought terminating cliches, I have one more question. How many fingers am I holding up?
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.