When words do not mean what you think

I read that sales of George Orwells novel 1984 have risen dramatically following the American surveillance scandal. The Internet bookstore Amazon reports that the book has jumped from number 11,855 on their sales chart straight into the top 100.

In the eerily prophetic novel, initially published in 1949, Orwell describes a society where Big Brother and the State follow everything that citizens say, do and think. A new language has been created, aiming to hide unpleasant truths, to mislead and propagandize. Here is what Orwell writes:

The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets.


Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.

Does that ring a bell? The correct opinions. Speak without thinking. Words used as tools to hide, not to describe. I am getting a nasty Orwellian vibe when taking a walk in my old hometown of Malmö on a sunny Saturday in June. Large billboards advertise the city of Malmö: Meeting place Malmö. Where immigrants and Swedes meet. And then a cozy drawing of people meeting. But the truth is, as everyone who has visited Malmö for more than five minutes knows, when immigrants and Swedes meet in town, it is much too rarely a happy encounter. Frequently it is about confrontation, and at times it involves violent incidents. It is about throwing stones at the police and emergency services, about young people being abused and robbed, about gangster showdowns that make bullets whistle round the ears of normal, peaceful fellow citizens.

LOVE MULTICULTURALISM is the message of posters put up here and there in town. I immediately get the feeling that this is really a threat in disguise love multiculturalism, or else! This reminds me of the main character of 1984, Winston Smith, and his work at the Ministry of Truth: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, its façade reads. The meaning of the words has been changed to fit the Party, and Lord have mercy on anyone questioning the party line.

One frequently gets precisely the same feeling when hearing our politicians speak. Certain words keep popping up cooperation, diversity, exclusion, paperless, meeting spaces. But what do these words mean? What does the word integration mean nowadays? It very obviously does not have the same meaning for Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of Sverigedemokraterna.

You believe that immigrants are to blame for everything, says Reinfeldt.

You are hiding behind empty phrases, says Åkesson.

I wont go into just who is correct here; that is not my point. My point is that we are on a perilous route when words are used to hide, to shuffle away the important cards. In the climate currently dominating our societies, it is hardly surprising that 1984 is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. People feel that they are being deceived. And one cannot hide the truth with euphemisms forever. Eventually reality always knocks on the door.


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