(Author’s note: This is a bit of a break from my usual posts but, after reading 1984 for the first time, I felt inspired to write this. I’m not used to writing this sort of thing so please be gentle)
When someone is asked how Big Brother keeps control in 1984, they’re quick to point to the omnipresent cameras and microphones, the Thought Police scattered throughout society and the dreaded Room 101. However, as O’Brien states, what the Party wants is not just outward obedience. They want the proles to think just the way they want them to as well. Propoganda and brutal suppression of freedom of speech aren’t enough to do this. To do this, they employ liberal doses of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser assaults the victim’s version of events so much that they doubt their own sanity and are persuaded to believe in the abuser’s side of the story.
One of the most obvious symptom of gaslighting is telling very blatant lies. Just as an abusive partner might lie about threatening their partner mere minutes after they did it, the Party lies to the proles’ faces about practically everything: who they’re at war with, whether rations are up or down, education levels, e.t.c. They even change who they’re at war with right in the middle of a propaganda parade and yet everyone just changes the names on the posters and in the chants without raising an eyebrow. Mainly because they will be arrested (despite the obviously false assertion that there are no laws in Oceania) and ‘vaporised’ but, if that were the case, there would be at least a few subtle signs of resistance or at least some signs of reluctance from everyone. The idea that everyone else is stupid and that Winston and Julia are the smart ones for resisting is not only wrong but grossly insulting.
It’s the very fact that the story changes so frequently and that ‘facts’ are so likely to change in a second that makes people so willing to accept the Party line. It’s not just danger of ‘misinterpretation’ and the Thought Police that the proles have to fear but constant physical danger from indiscriminate bombing, meaning no one is sure whether they’ll live to see the next day. The constant changes and threats create such an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that the proles and party members will gravitate to anyone who acts like they know what they’re talking about. Even as Julia and Winston are looking for an outlet of resistance, they gravitate towards O’Brien and ignore a few warning signs that he might not be genuine because he seems so sure in his assertions of a resistance and in the existence of Goldstein.
When Winston is taken to the Ministry of Love (the very names of the Ministries are the blatant lies of a gaslighter), we get to see some person-to-person gaslighting as he and O’Brien go into a war of attrition with the truth. We also see another symptom of gaslighting play out in O’Brien calling Winston insane and claiming that he intends to ‘cure him’ by calmly asserting that Winston’s perception of the facts is false, despite holding photographic evidence of it in his hand moments before. At first, Winston tries to defy him but, sadly, O’Brien has more resources and more patience. Winston ultimately crumbles in the face of constant onslaught.
Or, a not-so-constant onslaught. Near the end of his sentence at the Ministry of Love, Winston is treated better than he was. Regular beatings are replaced with regular meals and sessions with O’Brien go by without using the torture devices. This is perhaps the most powerful weapon in an abuser’s arsenal: strategic sprinkling of kindness among all the misery to make the victims think that they’re good people really and they are the ones who are bringing on the abuser’s bad side. Even the strongest of personalities can only stand so much attack from all sides.
Crucially, O’Brien says outright that he doesn’t want to settle for Winston simply telling him what he wants to hear to avoid pain. Any old regime can do that. What the Party is aiming for is to make everyone believe that two and two make five, not just say they do because that’s what they need to say to survive. By the time his time at the Ministry of Love is over, Winston is so tired of mentally fighting against the immovable Party that he gives up and, like all of the proles, go along with Big Brother’s story without question. The Party doesn’t even need to denounce Winston as a rebel or a madman. Everyone’s so gaslit that they don’t even choose to notice his disappearance.
Oceania is not at war with Eastasia or Eurasia but with its own people. The Party wages a constant offensive on their people to wear them down so much that they can’t even recognise who the real enemy is, let alone fight against it. The erasure of information at the Ministry of Truth is really just a formality. The Ministry of Love is really all the Party needs to keep everyone singing Big Brother’s tune.