Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

by Bryan Meniado

In a few months, we Filipinos will choose our next national leaders in the 2022 elections. It’s another opportunity for us not only to exercise our right to suffrage but also to influence the direction of our national lives for the next six years. This exercise also entails a big responsibility for the electorate to make informed decisions and to be socially, politically, and historically adept to choose the right kind of leaders for the genuine welfare of the country. 

To help shape our political decision in May 2022, I’m sharing about the classic dystopian novel and cautionary—almost prophetic—tale that is the book called Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist, and critic famous for his allegorical, dystopian, and satirical works that center on the themes of anti-fascism and democratic socialism. 

Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four explores the dangers of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, oppression, and brainwashing. It also discusses the concepts of perpetual war, historical denialism, and government propaganda which all very much resonate with our current social and political discourse in the country. Hence, I think it would be beneficial if more Filipinos read Nineteen Eighty-Four—that is, if they haven’t yet—with the hope of guiding us navigate through the ever-polarizing realm of Philippine politics and society. 

The rise of big brothers and strongmen

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story from the perspective of Winston Smith and revolves around the antagonistic regime of Ingsoc, the sole political party of the super-state Oceania. Ingsoc is under the leadership of Big Brother, who has an extreme cult of personality. It constantly reinforces blind obedience and loyalty of the people to the Party and to Big Brother through brainwashing, constant surveillance, and purging anyone who does not fully conform to the status quo.

Similar to Big Brother, we’ve seen several strongmen rising to power across the globe in recent years. Strongmen are leaders who rule by the exercise of threats, force, or violence and are usually divisive because of their polarizing policies. I think we can attribute this rise to the fact that many of us have already grown so tired of all the social ills that we tend to look for the messiah who can solve everything for us at once. In other words, we want an easy way out or a shortcut to liberate ourselves from this permanent crisis of poverty, corruption, and criminality. 

However, aside from it being ineffective, this kind of leadership is inclined towards dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies just like Big Brother who uses the Thought Police to instill fear and quell dissent. And this is a recipe for disaster as it withers away the very foundation of democracy. These kinds of leaders go after the facts, and they lie all the time and invoke the blame game and say it’s their opponents or critics who lie. And everyone looks around confused with all the disinformation and says “What is the truth? There is no truth.” At that point, resistance is impossible and the game is over. This is the reason why we have to be more cautious. We have to be smarter, be more self-aware, and be more equipped not to fall for the promises, or rather lies, of leaders like Big Brother. 

Recognizing and addressing our biases

For us to be more equipped in recognizing lies and false promises, we have to resolve our cognitive dissonance—the mental conflict when our behavior and beliefs do not align— and not fall victim to our own biases. Similarly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell coined the term “doublethink” which means the ability to accept contradicting opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination. 

This is the ultimate form of propaganda and it is happening a lot in the current socio-political discourse in the Philippines, particularly now that we’re nearing the 2022 elections. We see historical denialism, fake news, and disinformation on social media every day and, unfortunately, many unsuspecting people fall for these and, worse, further propagate the lies. These occurrences  also result in toxicity and hostility, which can create a wider divide among Filipinos as we can’t engage in decent dialogues anymore in this so-called post-truth era. 

But as bad as it may seem, I don’t want to be in an utterly defeatist mode. I think there is still hope to make our conversations more meaningful and respectful, and for us to keep moving forward as a nation. We just have to be willing to challenge ourselves by asking difficult questions and to open our minds to learn more than just what meets the eye. More importantly, we have to have the willingness to accept that we might be wrong and to change our minds if presented with facts from credible and verifiable sources. 

Striving for the truth 

The critical role of media and quality education cannot be more emphasized nowadays. Recently, more Filipinos are becoming more skeptical of the media and the information they consume, which also has some good consequences. It’s good that people are starting to ask questions, reconsider their previously held views, and, sometimes, change their opinions based on new information. 

One example of this is how more Filipinos are revisiting the successes and failures of EDSA and post-EDSA administrations. On one side, it can be taken as a good sign that more people are rekindling their interest in Philippine history, politics, and society. Furthermore, more people are being empowered because of the fact that information is conveniently available at our fingertips.

On the other side, the big downside of it is that more people are also unknowingly being fed with the wrong information and alternative “facts” because of all the disinformation online. Many of us are not able to tell whether the information we are exposed to is true or not. Some of us easily fall prey to fake news peddlers and influencers and false dichotomies and fallacies, and we ultimately blame mainstream media for supposedly brainwashing us with biased information. 

The truth is there’s no unbiased media or even people. We all have our biases, including journalists and historians. What’s important is to recognize those biases, to be more aware of our own shortcomings, and to always aspire for truth. We must always remember that opinions may vary but nobody can change the facts, and no political party—like Ingsoc that constantly rewrites history for their own interests—can dictate what those facts are.

 If someone is proven to have stolen, plundered, murdered, and lied based on available historical data, peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles, credible and verifiable news sources, and authoritative court decisions, then that must be the truth. The “respect my opinion” excuse shouldn’t be invoked all the time, especially if the opinion is not informed because we actually have the means  to know the truth. Facts are out there and readily available if we know how and where to look. We just have to have critical-thinking, fact-checking, and research skills to be able to discern what’s true and what’s best for us, our kapwa, and our country. 

Protecting and promoting our rights 

As mentioned, “respect my opinion” is a dangerous excuse because it hinders us from having truthful and productive dialogues towards advancing the political discourse. Our opinions must be informed, backed up with facts and not with ‘CTTO’ and questionable videos from TikTok and YouTube. We must also remember that some values and truth are not up for debate. Some things, like theft and murder, are wrong no matter how noble the intentions may be. We must be wary if and when someone says “kill” to supposedly cleanse our nation as if that’s the only way to do it. 

In connection, human dignity and rights are inviolable, intrinsic, and universal. They are fundamental values and truths that every human being has no matter the circumstances or backgrounds. It’s saddening that even these fundamental concepts are still being challenged and debated upon in the 21st century. We should keep in mind that these values should not be violated and compromised. We should also keep that in mind as we elect our next leaders. 

Towards a better Philippines

The greatest lesson I picked up from reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is that entities like Big Brother and Ingsoc are afraid of an educated populace. They don’t want the people to know. That’s why they control the flow of information through peddling fake news, disinformation, and historical denialism to maintain their personal interests, to reclaim or hold on to power, and to bury their wrongdoings and crimes.

Thus, if we truly care about our country, we should let go of our political fandom because, as they say: “the day you become a (blind) fan of a politician, that’s the day you’ve failed as a citizen.” If we can’t criticize the people we admire, it’s not admiration. It’s cult worship. Our loyalty should lie not to individuals, groups, or parties but to the interest and welfare of our people. Moreover, complaining and expressing dissent when we see injustice, corruption, and moral bankruptcy are our responsibility not just as citizens but as human beings. We must be smarter, be more vigilant, and be able to empathize more. Let us bring these thoughts with us in May 2022. ☁️

Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.

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