A blurry image of a crowd of people walking down a street.

Down the memory hole we go – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, contributing business leadership writer

If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality. For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Years ago, my job was teaching English at a major high school outside of Syracuse, NY. Among the many classic works of literature assigned, was the George Orwell novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although written in 1948, so many of the outlandish plots and themes of the novel have come to be reality. We actually invite “Big Brother” (a phrase coined in the book) into our homes via Zoom, FaceTime, GPSs, smart watches, smart phones, doorbell cameras etc. In the appendix of his classic book, Orwell describes the language that he used in the novel, Newspeak. Newspeak is a language designed to control every aspect of an individual’s life by combining words and eliminating any word connoting negativity.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is no word for “bad”, only “ungood”. Other ironic words were created to baffle and confuse citizens such as, “doublethink”, a brainwashing process where an entire population is expected to accept as true that which is clearly false, or to simultaneously accept two mutually opposing beliefs as correct, often in violation of one’s own memory or sense of reality. Examples from the book are “blackwhite” (believing two contradictory idea at once), “unperson” (a person eradicated from existence), “facecrime”, (guilty of “throughtcrime” by facial expression), and “thinkpol”, or thought police.

We have our own ironic names for things which we may not like such as the retired ICBM, the “Peacekeeper” missile, downsizing, animal by-products, bliss point (the point at which you can’t resist eating an entire bag of potato chips), and other confusing words and phrases, all meant to mean the opposite of what they actually say. And the latest doublespeak comes right from Washington, “escalate to deescalate”, (bomb a key military officer to scare an enemy into submission). We’ve lived through a great time of uncertainty, not knowing who or what to believe, made worse by social media, and it generates a great deal of worry and apprehension among the public; many have been and still are too afraid to leave their homes or resume their lives free of concern.

But why are words and what we mean by them so important? Because words (and images) create our history, they reflect time, a record, a phase of life, an era. I came across a wonderful definition of why words are important: “Words are important. We forget that sometimes. We forget how dangerous and beautiful words can be. Simple words can completely change your life. Yes, words are important because we need them to communicate, but the way that words are presented, spoken, and written are a whole different level of communication.” (Johnny Lim) It’s the how we communicate words that matters. How words are presented, spoken and written can change the course of history, can change people’s lives forever, words are a call to action. So how do we know when words are doublespeak or newspeak or euphemisms, jargon, or bloviation? Now, in our present time of emerging from our national emergency, yet with Covid percolating around us, words in the form of truth are critical.

In our “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” world, the folks in the White House can only wish the memory hole existed. But Orwell did not foresee the permanence of digital technology. The contradictions and doublespeak lives on in our digital memories forever. Lapses of memory can only be a choice that some people make. The video tapes don’t lie. The boldness of ignoring experts’ health warnings and then using the warnings as the basis for many politically convenient policies is trademark doublespeak, of course.

How will history remember this time of pandemic, and emerging from the pandemic? Powerful emotional events create strong memories. Yet, in this pandemic, the inconsistent messaging, the confusion about public mingling, and mask wearing may leave our memories fuzzy. We almost can’t remember spraying down our mail and packages as they were delivered to us, or wiping down our groceries. Maybe we’ll remember what we could not do, rather than what we did. Maybe the feelings of confusion and uncertainty will leave us with a hodge-podge of fragments of memories, maybe some of will believe it was all a hoax. Or that this was part of a larger plan, yet to be played out.


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.