Clocks Striking Thirteen: Exploring How Language and Media Influence Democracy

by Renée Davies

Democracy is a word with no fixed meaning. George Orwell calls it something generally thought of as good, though a concrete definition for it is often resisted (Politics and the English Language, 1946, p. 4); Neal Postman calls it a word with a checkered past, “used to mean a multitude of things (Democracy, 1999, p. 136); and John Street says that there are “…as many definitions of democracy as there are democratic theorists (Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, 2011, p. 305). What Orwell, Postman, and Street particularly agree on is that language and how we communicate are inextricably tied to the common Western view of democracy – that individual preferences take precedence over state control, out of respect for individual freedoms (Orwell, pp. 6, 9; Postman, pp. 144-46; Street, p. 304, 06). If language and how we communicate have a considerable impact on the democratic process, then what impact, if any, do new technology-based communication habits and their influence on literacy have on democracy and individual freedoms today? Postman thinks that as the printed word loses prominence in the digital age, so does rationality. He says it’s not the availability of information that matters in a democracy but one’s competence to understand it and to understand the laws that support our rights and freedoms codified in the printed word (pp. 145, 49).

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four tells the grim tale of a future where democracy is a thing of the past; a future ruled by a totalitarian government where media spew propaganda, books are banned, and free thought prohibited. The book is a work of fiction though taken as a precautionary tale for future generations. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley envisions a future quite different from Orwell’s dystopia, where banning books is unnecessary as no one is interested in reading them; it’s a future where people’s infinite appetite for pleasures and distractions makes them passive, egoistic and trivial (as cited in Black, 2012, p.6). But which dystopian tale is more likely to occur, if at all? Huxley’s Brave New World bears an uncanny resemblance to today’s pleasure seeking culture. In a letter to Orwell, Huxley says “My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power” (King, 2012). The question is not so much which of the two dystopian governments is more likely to occur, but rather, which will be more expedient to control future populations? Democracy is a tenuous system of government because what buttresses it – the rationalism, individualism, and intellectualism stemming from in depth reading, linear reasoning and contemplation, are gradually fading as we propel ourselves into a digital age of aural and visual media.

This paper argues that democracy is a tentative political system whose structure depends on a balanced interplay between how society communicates and how mass media operate. Section I discusses the ambiguity behind the word democracy, and how great thinkers held the ideology in disfavour; Section II considers how literacy is an essential element in the democratic process; and Section III reviews positive and negative potentialities of media in democracy.

Section I. The Tentative Nature of Democracy

Our modern concept of democracy is generally a good one, but historically, it was considered a deficient political system (Postman, pp.136-40). Its origins are found in the Greek city-states where great philosophers like Aristotle and Plato rejected it as the worse form of rule “giving power to those who had neither intellectual resource nor moral rigor to govern wisely” (p. 136). The Romans did not favour the concept either, particularly the idea of “the people” participating directly in the political sphere (p. 137). In America, John Adams considered it an “ignoble and unjust form of government” (p. 139). Postman says this was not an unusual reaction as these “were men of wide learning and refined intellect [prone to] “elitist” tendencies (p. 139), whose main concern was the maintenance of public order and the avoidance of anarchy (p.137). John Locke, one of the first philosophers to support the concept of democracy, thought political society depended on consenting individuals to join in, and believed in the individual rights of property in society (p. 137). It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that a “national conversation emerged” (Street, p. 303) from the rapid spread of ideas through the printed word. Alexis de Tocqueville credited newspapers for the flourishing of the democratic ideal (p. 303). But still, ambiguity persisted around the word democracy

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell writes that “not only is there no agreed definition [for democracy], but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides”, [and] defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” (p. 4). Surprisingly, despots like Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin used the word to describe their government, and Stalin claimed that the Soviet Union had the most democratic system in all history (Postman, p. 139). Today, we have a generally favourable and accepted definition for the word democracy while, surprisingly, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence is the word mentioned. But great thinkers and political theorists agree that at the heart of a sound democratic system is a thriving system of communication (Orwell, pp. 6, 9; Postman, pp. 144-46; Street, p. 304, 06).

Section II. Communication, the Essential Element in Democracy

Postman says that “the means by which people communicate with each other, including their government, are the keys to how workable any system is” (Postman, p. 141). John Stuart Mill believes that the active participation of the people with their government is an essential part of the democratic process (as cited in Postman, p. 141). But active participation with one’s government requires more than action. It requires an understanding of the issues at hand which can only be achieved through literacy.

According to research by Beall and Topp in Moving Towards a New Literacy, the internet is changing our concept of literacy. They argue that hypertext encourages the wide exploration of many unrelated topics at a superficial level, and discourages linear and rational thinking. They say that “organizing one’s thoughts into a linear, hierarchal argument is a large part of what we call literate only because the technology of print does not invite other ways to structure an argument” (1999). But what concerns them is the possibility of virtual reality replacing literate interaction online and eventually making literacy altogether unnecessary, sending us back into an oral society. One can understand the dangers of an oral society where the intellectual elite hold incredible power over the illiterate.

Orwell writes that slovenly language engenders foolish thoughts and political chaos (pp. 1, 9). But he says that “…if one is willing to take the necessary trouble…one can think more clearly, and to think more clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration” (p. 1).

Section III. How Media Influences Democracy

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville declares that he is “…far from denying that newspapers in democratic countries lead citizens to do very ill-considered things in common; but without newspapers there would be hardly any common action at all” (as cited in Street, p.303). While Tocqueville understands media potential for negative influence, he also recognizes the power media lend to the people. Two assumptions are needed to maintain that media empower people in the democratic process: one is that consumers of media are literate and able to analyze media information, and two, that media are free to provide objective news on diverse ideas and opinions. A response to the first assumption is discussed in Section II. In terms of the second assumption, of media having the freedom to gather and provide news objectively on a wide range of topics, the US Constitution’s First Amendment insists that no law will be made that limits the freedom of speech, or of the press. Obviously, restrictions apply where, for example, hate speeches have the power to damage identities (Street, p. 309).

Great journalism, according to Street, provides a political forum for citizens (p. 306), and “holds the powerful to account” (p. 311). But that’s assuming the ideal of freedom of speech and of the press remains uncompromised by media centralization or corporate monopoly. Unfortunately, commercial interests do compromise objective journalism. The late 19th century marked the beginning of selling news as a commercial venture with advertisements being major sources of revenue (p. 312). By affixing a price tag to the news, media outlets are compromised and corporate interests clash with news values (p. 313). Street warns that “If a democratic order is one that seeks to enhance the growth of knowledge, cultural pluralism and access, it cannot afford to allow an unfettered right to private ownership of media. The threat to democracy …comes not from the state but from the mass media industries themselves.” (p. 314)

Conclusion

The word democracy has a history laden with ambiguity. Its early reputation sparked criticism from Greek and Roman philosophers alike, and from the Founding Fathers of America who considered the political concept unwise and dangerous. But near the end of the 18th century, the concept of democracy gained favour and momentum when the printed word increased literacy, spread ideas, elicited public discourse and created a kind of national identity. Communication thus became an essential part of the democratic ideal. Media today continue to support the democratic process by providing news and helping citizens make informed decisions about the issues that affect them; but concerns arise about the increase in private media ownership and the subsequent clash between corporate interests and news values. Still others worry about the impact our digital age has on literacy, believing that an increase in virtual reality could replace literate interactions and send us back to an oral society.

Chapter One in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four begins with the words “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1949). Some believe thirteen is a metaphor introducing the Ingsoc party’s power to change numbers on clocks, while others believe it suggests an alternate reality, an unlucky number, or maybe a symbol for military control over society. In an interview with the Library of Economics and Liberty, Christopher Hitchens describes his surprise at finding similarities between Orwell’s metaphor and John Adams’ earlier declaration that “we have to have thirteen clocks (colonies) all strike at the same time”(Hitchens on Orwell, 2009). Whatever similarities and speculations there may be, Orwell never clarified his meaning on the subject. But we stand at the gates of an important epoch in history, where knowledge increases exponentially while the real power of knowing and literacy decrease at alarming rates. Maybe we’ve missed the clarion call by one hour and stand beyond the cautionary stroke of midnight into the thirteenth hour where a version of Orwell and Huxley’s dystopias are well underway.

References

Beall, M. & Topp, J. (2012, December 1). Moving towards a new literacy: The impact of the internet on literacy. McMaster University. Retrieved from http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/soc/courses/stpp4C03/ClassEssay/literacy.htm#1

Hitchens, C. (2009, August 17). Hitchens on Orwell. Library of economics and liberty. [Interview]. Retrieved from http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2009/08/hitchens_on_orw.html

King, R. (2012, March 7). In the future, I’m right: Letter from Aldous Huxley to George Orwell over 1984 novel sheds light on their different ideas. Retrieved from http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2009/08/hitchens_on_orw.html

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English language. Stanford MLA. [PDF]. Retrieved from http://iis.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/Politics_%26_English_language.pdf

Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen eighty–four. The complete works of George Orwell. Chapter 1. Retrieved from http://www.george-orwell.org/1984/0.html

Postman, Neil (1999). Chapter 8, Democracy. Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: Ideas from the Past That Can Improve Our Future. Pages 136-154.

Street, J. (2011). Mass media, politics & democracy. A free press: democracy and mass media. Chapter 12. (pp. 303-17). New York: Palgrave MacMillan