The “Terrible Simplifiers” of Totalitarianism: How Certainty Can Ruin a Population

By Yousef Hindy

The widespread political turmoil of the early twentieth century gave birth to a new form of repressive government: totalitarianism. Unlike other repressive systems of the past, totalitarianism as manifested in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, and other countries was meant to destroy any semblance of the individual in favor of the collective good of the populace. While the stated mission was to protect the populace, the concentration of power often perverted the mission and turned security into subjugation. Leaders like Stalin would use a myriad of tactics and strategies like brute force and economic control to stay in power, but one of the most important developments in terms of curtailing the freedom of the populace came in the form of restricting freedom of speech and information. Dictators realized that they could not sustain their behaviors and policies if they did not have at least some support from the masses. So instead of relying solely on force as a means of control, they attempted to get inside the minds of their citizens and indirectly control their thoughts and ideas so they would believe the government actually cares for them. To someone inside of one of these countries, this distinction might not have been completely obvious, but many writers in more democratic countries feared the dangers of such limited freedom.

Writers like George Orwell wrote dystopian novels like 1984 to warn readers of the dangers of a continuation and spread of totalitarianism. In his fictional Oceania, Orwell particularly focuses on the restriction of freedom of thought and speech. The repression of free speech and ideas acts as an essential tool for a totalitarian government, as conditioned citizens lose any uncertainty about their lives, and they believe that what is being done to them is right and for a greater cause. When no open forum for ideas to be challenged exists, dogma permeates the populace and unnecessarily simplifies the complexities of life. Ultimately, freedom lies in the ability to have uncertainty, open-mindedness, and a diversity of opinion of the populace. Freedom therefore cannot exist when individuals subscribe to dogma and does not realize that they can make their own meaning in life.

Before examining how exactly propaganda and censorship eliminate essential freedoms, the definition of freedom of ideas and speech ought to be explored. One of the first essential components for one’s own freedom is the elimination of dogma, as dogma implies certainty. The idea of uncertainty is key for understanding an individual’s freedom, for if one believes that absolute certainty exists in life, they will live their life according to that certainty with no room for adjustment. The situation is worsened still when the certainty or dogma comes from someone else. As Tim Urban writes in his exposé on Elon Musk, “[D]ogma will quickly have you living someone else’s life. Dogma doesn’t know you or care about you and is often completely wrong for you—it’ll have a would-be happy painter spending their life as a lawyer and a would-be happy lawyer spending their life as a painter” (Urban). Someone subscribing to any dogma immediately limits him or herself as they are choosing a framework of truths that does not allow for any flexibility. When tricked into thinking that one knows everything, he or she would never pursue the actual truth. In addition, situations where decisions are necessary often bear too much complexity for one idea or principle to give a correct answer. In order to most freely choose the best option, one must decide for him or herself the best course of action given the immediate circumstances, and not choose one because some abstract ideals proscribed it.

Simone De Beauvior expounded upon the existential consequences of letting oneself be a follower of dogma in her Ethics of Ambiguity. She defines the serious man as the man who accepts the values that society has given to him as absolute fact, never questioning the validity of his basic beliefs. Instead of trying to figure out the truth of the world for himself, he bases his decisions based on beliefs that were told to him with no substantive evidence, accepting dogma that he played no part in creating. The tragedy and danger for the serious men stem from the fact that they “can exercise their freedom, but only within this universe which has been set up before them, without them” (Beauvoir, 37). The narrow mindedness of the serious man therefore prohibits him from seeing the world from any other point of view. Since he does not know that more freedom exists beyond his realm, he is perfectly content not only to continue on his restricted path, but also to impose his viewpoint on others. He cannot create a reality or truth for himself and ends up being a sort of servant to someone else’s ideology, thereby forfeiting a significant part of his freedom that comes from his ability to reason for himself.

This idea leads into another component of personal freedom: the ability to choose and reason independently of others. One does not need to be under a totalitarian government to have forfeited this freedom. Casting aside dogma and bias does not come easily, and therefore has only been achieved by a small proportion of the population who are conscious of these issues. Eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant tells us that this difficulty to rid oneself of dogma “is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from the nonage by cultivating their own minds” (Kant). The presence of these thinkers is crucial to preserving the ideas of freedom in a nation with freedom of speech and discourse, for without them and their independent ideas, the government would directly dictate the course of many people’s lives, in effect taking their freedom to make decisions for themselves.

One of the necessary conditions, then, for a state that cultivates this sort of freedom, is a mechanism through which ideas can be discussed and debated in the public sphere. The ability to freely and openly discuss the merits of different ideas inherently destroys the power of dogma, as reasonable discourse will measure the merit of an idea. Debate and discussion allow ideas to grow organically too, as people with differing opinions support their side and listen to viewpoints of others. This meritocracy of ideas can only exist in a state in which the government advocates the intellectual freedom of the populace.

While the totalitarian government intends to eliminate any semblance of the individual and freedom of choice, their most powerful tool comes in fundamentally changing how its subjects think. Once accomplished, they have gained an immense amount of control over how the people act and the security of their power, as no one will think to revolt if they believe that the government is truly working for them or that they would be worse off without the “benevolence” of those in charge. This methodology of controlling thoughts therefore differentiates totalitarianism from other forms of oppressive governments before it. Before the early twentieth century, rulers merely used force and economic control to physically control how people acted and what they produced, respectively. This form of repression is difficult, however, as Robin Lakoff points out in The Talking Power of Politics, since “people remain aware that they must speak and behave in ways that do not reflect what is going on in their minds” (260). Instead of merely changing how people act, John Young points out that “the totalitarian ‘terrible simplifiers’ do aim at altering human nature and destroying every source and shape of resistance and every pocket of individual privacy” (8). In essence, the totalitarian governments tried to be more thorough in their destruction of resistance by entering a realm that was thought to be entirely private: an individual’s own mind. By controlling the thoughts of its populace to provide a sense of certainty and “seriousness”, a totalitarian government would not need to rely as much on force or economics. In existential terms, the oppressors try to create a population of “serious” people devoted to the ideas and principles of those in charge. When every individual truly believes that what the government is proscribing is the absolute truth, the government then has absolute control.

But what are these “terrible simplifiers” of which Young writes? The most popular means of controlling the thoughts of a populace employed by totalitarian governments came in the alteration of history, cult of personality, and the perversion of language, forces that are often underestimated in their importance to determining one’s psychology. By altering the conception of the past itself, the totalitarian government enters into the minds of its citizens. Since many often look to the past for answers, if their belief of the past is incorrect, they are not making decisions based on their own will, but instead based on the will of whomever altered history. As the Party of Oceania in 1984 put it, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, 35-36). Governments therefore use tactics like propaganda and the alteration of historical records to make a narrative that fits their goals.

For example, Joseph Stalin used his power to change the history by getting rid of people that he did not like. For example, in an effort to remove dissenters from the Communist Party, from 1936 to 1938 Stalin initiated a program of “purging” the party leadership, the army, and the general populace of anyone antagonistic to his vision. For example, in order to erase the memory of his chief of secret Soviet police Nikolai Yezhov, who actually led most of the Great Purge, Stalin edited Yezhov out of pictures to give the impression that they did not associate with each other (Tukh). As a result, Stalin actually changed the past to suit his own needs. Even if Yezhov had not done anything wrong, in the minds of the populace he was an enemy. By changing history and eliminating any possibility for expressing dissent, Stalin effectively forced unanimity of spirits and thoughts among his people, eliminating any freedom of thought or expression.

Orwell’s Oceania also frequently practiced changing history to suit its needs. The novel’s protagonist, Winston, works in the ironically named Ministry of Truth, which is actually in charge of perverting the truth. For example, if Big Brother made a prediction that turned out to be false, ministry workers would go back and change his words to fit whatever the situation was so that Big Brother could never be wrong. Since people then believed that Big Brother was always right, it gave them a dangerous sense of certainty and absoluteness. In addition, the practices served as an effective tool to quell the populace, as “when memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested” (Orwell, 95-96). Orwell’s words reveal the intent of the government: to be the truth. Once the totalitarian state becomes the source of absolute truth for the populace, they can control what everyone believes and eliminate the diversity of thought and discourse that gives intellectual health and freedom to a group of people. While Stalin attempted to do something similar, the Party of Oceania has a level of control over history that far exceeds the USSR’s capability to do so. As a result, they could have a much stronger grip over the minds of their subjects.

Another means of creating a sense of certainty and security in the state came in the utilization of a cult of personality. For example, Stalin employed the use of cult of personality to keep his country and parts of the world under his iron grip. Soviet media, under his direction, made him out to be a caring paternal figure for the entire country, with its citizens being his “children” (Gill, 171). The cult of personality contributed to the dogmatic way of thinking that he drilled into the populace. For example, since Stalin had a low tolerance for any dissent, the government gave off the illusion that it unanimously supported the leader (Ennker, 88). Most people in the country must have therefore believed that if their government supported him whole-heartedly, then he cared about the people and acted on their behalf, which once again contributed to the aura of certainty that permeated the populace.


Courtesy emaze

Orwell takes the cult of personality a step further, making the image of the unknown leader of the Party, Big Brother, ubiquitous. In addition, all the posters and screens read “Big Brother is Watching You.” The slogan symbolizes the fact that every citizen in the country has a TV screen that constantly watches him or her. Not only were everyone’s actions being monitored, but any citizen could also be accused and convicted of “thoughtcrime” in Oceania if they merely thought about something that was against the Party. The enforcement of thought demonstrates how the government tried to get in the heads of the citizens and root out any dissent or sedition from the source: the mind. The idea of Big Brother permeates every facet of life in Oceania, with his face on billboards, posters, and screens all across the city. In addition, during the daily Two-Minutes-Hate, in which Party members express their hate for the enemy, people chant Big Brother’s name in “an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise” (Orwell, 17). The Party is so successful at controlling minds that it has people in a daily state of hypnosis, certainty, and love for their leader that deprives them of their freedom to think for themselves. Instead of ever needing to think for themselves, since Big Brother appears all-powerful and all knowing, they only need to turn to Big Brother for answers. Such tactics further illustrate the novelty of the totalitarian ideal: not just physically controlling what the subjects do, but also stripping the individual of his or her ability to reason independently and find meaning in their own lives.


Courtesy uludagsozluk

The third main “terrible simplifier” comes in the tactical use of language, as the words we know affect the knowledge we have. Percy Shelley wrote in Prometheus Unbound that God “gave man speech, and speech created thought,/ Which is the measure of the universe;” (Shelley). Shelley’s remarks demonstrate how powerful language is in how humans think. Since a human’s stream of consciousness is essentially just words, an individual’s vocabulary greatly influences the thoughts he or she can have. While no one can know every word representing every idea, let any restriction on the words that one knows imposed by an outside body represent a curtailment of thought. While any mutations of language may seem insignificant, totalitarian leaders truly believed that “by controlling language, … [they] could control their subjects” (Young, 3). Since their intention was not to merely use brute force to subject citizens to their will, the best way to make people follow them was to alter language and deeply convince the populace that their rule is legitimate.

Oceania’s most effective and distinctive means of controlling the populace, however, therefore comes in its invention of a new language: Newspeak. Created by the same Ministry of Truth that changes the past, Newspeak resembles English in its grammar, but heavily restricts the vocabulary used, removing any words that could be used in a thoughtcrime. Although the language had not yet been completely adapted by the populace, the Party planned to make it universal within 50 years of the story. By manipulating the language, the Party was able to alter the thoughts of citizens and eliminate any subversive ideas. In an appendix to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” Orwell wrote that “the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible” (Orwell, 309-310). Since the thoughts one has are rooted in the words one knows, if one does not have a word of a concept, he or she cannot have that idea in their mind. The government therefore tried to remove concepts and ideas that would have been contrary to their vision. For example, if the Party removes the word “revolution” from everyone’s vocabulary, how will people ever lead a revolution if they do not know what it is? As a result, freedom of thought is directly curtailed by the imposition of one way of thinking as the only way of thinking. Newspeak and all the tactics used by the Party in Oceania ultimately create a type of serious world in which whatever the Party says is the truth, and anyone who goes against it is an enemy.

One crucial question arises, however: can the government actually make its subjects believe something that they themselves do not believe? While some may argue that is it not impossible to actually make someone believe something, Orwell argues that if one party wields enough power, they can make an individual believe almost anything. In 1984, for the most part, the government seems to have successfully altered the minds of most of the populace. One of the few free thinkers which readers know, Winston, has his own free thoughts about the nature of the party, but hides them lest he be arrested for thoughtcrime. In a sense, he gives readers hope that a free thinker can still exist in such a society. Such hopes are quickly dashed once the secret police apprehend him and take him to the Ministry of Love. They subject him to the tortures of Room 101, where victims face their biggest fear. As a result of the torture, Winston outs his lover Julia and finds that the party can truly make him believe lies like “2+2=5” or the infamous Party slogan “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” Most important of all, however, is how after his reentry into society, Winston finds himself a completely changed man, not thinking negative thoughts about the oppressive tactics of the Party and instead truly buying into their narrative.

By means of cult of personality and the alteration of language and history, totalitarian governments like the USSR under Joseph Stalin and Orwell’s fictional Oceania destroyed the freedom of thought of their citizens in order to root out any last semblance of resistance to their plan. They did so by creating an aura of certainty and dogma that stifled dissenting opinions and discourse, essentially impressing close-minded attitudes upon citizens and casting them into the “serious man” mold that Beauvoir described. And since language and perception of history have a huge impact on an individual’s psychology, the restriction of language and the alteration of history consequently severely limit one’s intellectual liberty. And since, according to Kant, most of the population does not have the capacity for thinking independently, the few free thinkers bear the responsibility of resistance under a totalitarian regime. As evidenced by 1984, however, the government can even root out and destroy the minds of such thinkers if they are omnipotent. When the freedom of thought and expression was lost and there was a ubiquity of “seriousness” in the populace, other rights quickly followed too, as the serious man worships “inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself” (Beauvoir, 49). Physical and economic conditions were horrible, but no one could even think negatively about their situation. The justice system tossed out due process and spied on citizens, and a lack of freedom of speech allowed such practices to continue and flourish. All of these examples therefore reinforce the necessity of freedom of speech to a society, as once it is lost, many other freedoms follow suit. Totalitarian governments therefore serve as warnings to free societies of the dangers when the freedom to speak one’s mind and have a unique opinion is lost. The loss of freedom of thought reduces the freedom that comes from reason into an imposter that tricks people into believing that they are free.

Works Cited

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Ennker, Benno. The Stalin Cult, Bolshevik Rule and Kremlin Interactions in the 1930s. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Gill, Graeme. “The Soviet Leader Cult: Reflections on the Structure of Leadership in the Soviet Union”. British Journal of Political Science 10.2 (1980): 167–186. Web…

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question What Is Enlightenment? (1784).” Ed. Ted Humphrey. Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983. 41-49. Print.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. Talking Power: The Politics of Language in Our Lives. New York: Basic, 1990. Print.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.

“Prometheus Unbound:.” P. B. Shelley, Prometheus Unbound. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Tukh, Oleg. “Falsification of History.” University of Minnesota. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Urban, Tim. “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce.” Wait But Why. 6 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Young, John Wesley. Totalitarian Language: Orwell’s Newspeak and Its Nazi and Communist Antecedents. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1991. Print.