The way that we use language repeatedly lets evil-doers get away with harm to individuals, communities, and our whole society. This is how totalitarian regimes behave: Believe what the leaders say, not what your eyes tell you. Eventually, we begin to doubt ourselves, and we end up believing in the lies.
Abuse happens on a small scale when a lover or a friend insists on a narrative that belies their actions, the things that others can see. Someone who apologizes after hitting their partner makes the promise never to do it again – but then it happens again. Periods of repetition wear down our natural protective barriers until the day comes when we believe the promises, the insults, the words that seek to normalize what is far from normal behavior.
The problem has transformed from a clear vision of a traumatic situation to an image clouded by the blood of trauma and repeated emotional, psychological, and physical battering. “Normal” has become a tainted hidden secret: it is difficult to recall what was considered normal in the past if one’s view of the present is blurred by the taint of bloody and persistent abuse.
The “normal” I see now is a culture of fear, a recap of Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to life. While some might consider this a commentary on politics, I see my own life and those lives around me at work and in the streets as having changed due to fear. Each day I taste the air of a reluctance to speak openly on the part of co-workers, neighbors, and strangers at the grocery store. It is as though invisible lines have been drawn around accepted cultural norms of behavior.
In my work on an academic campus, I taste the fear of students who are reluctant to admit their immigration status. Some students reflect a subtle awareness of the change in the campus environment by avoiding conversations that focus on identity, culture, or ethnicity outside of the bare minimum needed for classroom assignments or what can be said in designated safe spaces.
Where fear is so rampant that the words coming out of one’s mouth must be scrutinized to avoid problems, then a natural protective measure is abused through overuse. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith’s very job in the Ministry of Truth is to re-write history in the manner that the ruling government wishes. In the novel, fear of what can happen to those who do not conform shapes new societal norms and behavior. Seventy years later, Orwell’s novel and its focus on the importance of how words matter resonates throughout our societal existence. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, opposites are equated: truth is propaganda, peace is war, love is fear, and plenty is impoverishment.
I worry about the fissures created by words. Like parched skin or dry earth, the cracks formed by the abuse of language leave emotional and psychological wounds that will take a long time to heal. It is not the large cut that takes a people down, but the smaller daily lacerations that seem insignificant as we bleed out bit by bit. As each of us grows used to these verbal fissures, we grow less able to challenge authority and less able to identify the truth.
Words count because they can be avenues for healing, recovery, and amelioration. Like my neighbors, friends, and colleagues, I have to remind myself daily to make the choice with words to enhance and improve a situation rather than to tarnish or hurt others because utterances matter.
For those in the Pagan, Heathen, and polytheist communities, we are invisible among a majority who may or may not understand who we are, what we do, who we worship, or why our presence is important to the larger macrocosm. Our words to each other have meaning, just as what we say to ourselves have relevance.
In elemental directions, east refers to air, though, intellect, and in this case – truth. Even if we are not sure about what our words actually mean, before we open our mouths we form our literal thoughts. Our utterances can change perceptions of others, and thus the world around us. Truth shapes our sense of reality. Our societal, emotional, and psychological foundations stand upon what we consider to be real, believable, and relevant to our daily lives. Stability stems from our sense of truth.
If words lose their status as stepping stones, then we lose our way and fall into the water. Consider what we memorize in school as things we have to know to live a good life: mathematical tables, vocabulary, key historical facts, etiquette as known by our families, basic life skills. These elements help to form the foundation for life as we know it. The specific points may vary, but the purpose for skills we learn in childhood is to smooth the path towards a successful adulthood. How we choose our words is a part of this knowledge, along with the understanding that our lives may well depend upon how we appear to others and how well our words serve us in adulthood.
The choice of words impacts how each of us sees the world around us. I look at the world primarily through literature, music, and history, because the first words that resonated with me as a person came from those areas. Others may look at the world through biology, economics, chemistry, or physics. We choose what engages our spirit at a time when we are not yet aware of how important these choices will be for our future lives.
Similarly, we often choose our friends, our politics, our outside interests, and our careers based on the role that words have played in our lives. Do we choose to associate with those who speak words that oppose our own beliefs? If we only engage with those whose words and thoughts are similar to our own, then our friends, politics, interests, partners, and careers will line up in a certain order. Do we choose to engage with those who differ from us in ideas and action? We then are able to see more of the vibrancy of life rather than the stagnation created when we remain in the bubble created when we choose only that which is similar to what we already know.
In an abusive situation, differences melt away in lieu of a safety that resides in being similar. Contrasting thoughts and ideas shrink into a hidden state as the need to be protected and safe outweighs the need for individual thought and expression. Dystopian novels gives us a means to consider these problems in a fictional setting. Opposites and chaos reign in the dystopian world. In reading how humanity is broken through the use of propaganda and a twisted sense of truth, we find an appreciation for our own reality outside of the novel.
In a philosophical, if not literal sense, Nineteen Eighty-Four portrays an advanced stage of abuse on a larger societal level. If history can be easily erased and re-written, then what we remember can and will be lost. If words no longer mean what they should on the surface, then we have no means to communicate in a language understandable by all. If we lose the means to communicate, then we lose ourselves.