Technology has allowed for advances in the quality of life in many aspects of health and behavior through medicines and innovative treatments. But with the advances of technology, comes the devolving of the essence of being human. Many critics of Orwell’s book 1984 cite the rise of authoritarianism, the loss of human freedoms, and the ability of the media to disseminate propaganda as the central themes of the book, but all of these can be tied together to a more simple term: dehumanization.
Regardless of the political reasons behind the treatment of people in Orwell’s novel, the fact that technology plays a part is noteworthy. As a society, we continue to employ technology using a propaganda model that assures the public that medicines and procedures are safe when they often are not. Concerned professors and critics, such as Leon Kass, have pointed to these dangers of dehumanization in relation to biotechnology. Consider the instance of children that are subjected to medicines, such as Ritalin. One can conclude that adults today have been convinced that altering children’s bodies and minds is standard and socially acceptable behavior. When children are viewed as the property of their parents rather than individuals, dehumanization is at its worst.
There are two particularly interesting angles that are taken in 1984 that can be directly related to the world that we live in today and deals precisely with the theme of dehumanization. The first example deals with propaganda and health, and was required to make the citizens in the novel believe that their country was the best because of the Party and Big Brother. The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, who is in charge of erasing history and changing news reports to make the Party seem powerful and beyond reproach, talks about this. He explains how the Party uses telescreens to constantly cite statistics on how people are better off in every aspect of their lives: they are bigger, healthier, stronger, happier, more intelligent, and better educated than the people of fifty years prior. Not a word of it could ever be proved or disproved (Orwell, p. 64).
This seems eerily similar to the constant barrage of commercials aimed at convincing viewers that they should take medications to improve their lives today. The fact that new medications cannot be proven safe as well makes this connection even more important.
The second angle that I find interesting in the book is the way that love is disallowed and families are not close in the sense that we would like to believe parents and their children would be in a civil society. In the world of Winston Smith, children are encouraged to, and did, turn their parents in to the Thought Police for behavior that was deemed to be inappropriate. Children were also not conceived in a traditional way. Winston Smith explains that all children were to be begotten by artificial insemination and brought up in public institutions (Orwell, p. 57). In the book, love in families was not allowed and there was no trust.
Consider today that children and adults live in seemingly parallel worlds – where children use technology (video games, ipods, social media, etc.) and parents live a world apart. And just like the technology and tools parents and children use, children all too often become tools that their parents use to achieve maximum benefit and potential with the least resistance.
1984 offers the reasons that people can manipulate and be manipulated in this dystopian novel, but many people don’t recognize instances when this occurs in the real world today.
Leon Kass has researched and written on this topic many times. In Preventing a Brave New World, Kass professes that people have been taught to embrace technological progress even at the cost by which this progress conquers nature and diminishes real thought and viable relationships. There is a medication for nearly every problem imaginable and an amusement readily available when we become bored. In this way, people and their own imaginations become irrelevant and trivial.
Books take too long to read, healthy relationships too long to cultivate and continue, and problems too time-consuming to solve when medications can do it much more quickly. In Preventing a Brave New World, Kass talks about human flourishing and that it is our more difficult task to find ways to preserve it from the soft dehumanization of well-meaning but hubristic biotechnical recreationism–and to do it without undermining biomedical science or rejecting its genuine contributions to human welfare.
It is true that it is difficult to separate the positive biotechnical contributions to the overall state of mind of a public, who doesn’t question it. So even if there are positives, we must always carefully evaluate the negatives — such as the nonconsensual dissemination of ADD and ADHD drugs for children for instance.
The authors of a Time article entitled, The Age of Ritalin, raise some very thought-provoking questions. Consider that the definition of a normal child is one that many parents battle. If their child is strong-willed, easily distracted, rebellious, or do not otherwise conform to so-called normative behavior, they are at risk for problems in school and a possible label from educators and doctors of ADD or ADHD. Some in the teaching and medical professions believe that it is outright neglect to deny medication to their children. This leaves a fear on the part of parents to keep their children in a state that causes the least resistance in their interactions with others, and a guilt that medicating their child might not be the right thing. There are other parents that simply do not have the time or patience to deal with a strong-willed child and will shop for the physician that will agree to medicate their child as quickly as possible.
So is it problems with children that are more prevalent now? Or is the problem with society in general?
Dr. Lawrence Diller wonders whether there is still a place for childhood in an anxious, downsized America as noted in the Time article. “What if Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn were to walk into my office tomorrow?” he asks. Tom’s indifference to schooling and Huck’s ‘oppositional’ behavior would surely have been cause for concern. Would I prescribe Ritalin for them too (Gibbs, et al)?”
Examining literature to provide us an understanding of what may be in store for our future, what is already occurring today, and in this case, what has been nostalgia for the simplicity of the past, is both appropriate and important.
The insights of writers such as Orwell provide us a warning for the dystopian future that was at the time – just that – a warning. Today however it has become reality, and we are called to act upon the complications of biotechnology done to ourselves, our families, and especially our children.
We may look back to a time when people perhaps did not live as long, but they lived better, without intervention, free. In this way we are human – when we chose to be free and to think for ourselves. If we refuse to do this, we are dehumanized, whether we are willing to admit it or not.
Nancy Gibbs, Ann Blackman, William Dowell, Margot Hornblower, Elisabeth Kauffman, Maggie Sieger. The Age of Ritalin, (11/30/98), 152(22), p86.
Leon Kass, Preventing a Brave New World in Human Life Review, (Summer 2001), 27(3), p14.
George Orwell, 1984, (1949), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York, NY.