If the media is to be believed, we’re living in Orwellian times. As a society, it seems that we’ve arrived at an intersection between 1984 and Animal Farm: an era where we can’t tell the difference between man and pig, where “the lie became the truth.” If you’d really like to flesh out the literary analogy, throw in some references to the Lord of the Flies-esque political deceit that was the election cycle, and you’ll have the dystopian trifecta.
The media elite aren’t the only ones who are noticing these parallels: as an English literature major, I’m programmed to think of the world around me in literary terms. It’s tempting, given the convulsions of this past year, to view our future with fear, to jump on the apocalyptic bandwagon and declare the death of American and civilization in general.
And it makes sense: we’ve just slogged through an emotionally exhausting twelve months. It’s been determined that 2016 is our generation’s version of 1968, with unrest and turmoil in every sphere of life. If that wasn’t enough, this summer was also designated the second Red Summer, almost one hundred years after the original event: six months of race riots and lynchings that spanned the entire country, resulting in hundreds of deaths. With stories of police brutality and shootings dominating media coverage this summer, it was hard not to draw parallels between the two.
But though that alone seems like a year’s worth of tragedy, since last January, we’ve also faced the Zika outbreak, the bombing in Brussels, multiple terror attacks in Israel — including the two fatal ones in Tel Aviv — and over fifteen hundred terror attacks the world over. Pulse nightclub was shot up this summer, killing fifty. Just the next month, five officers were shot and killed at a protest against police brutality.
If all of that wasn’t enough, the summer was capped off with the whimsically named “Brexit” or British exit from the European Union. The day after UK citizens picked the ‘out’ option of their in/out referendum, the cover of The New Yorker bore Monty Python exhibiting Silly Walk Off A Cliff. John Cleese teeters precariously at the edge of a gorge, bowler hat squarely on his head and his dapper, pinstriped left leg exaggeratedly stretched out over empty space, into which we know he will topple momentarily.
It was also the year we lost many beloved figures of our society. Some were celebrities who we considered to be pioneers in their fields: lightning-streaked David Bowie, Harper Lee, Leonard Cohen and playwright Edward Albee. Alan Rickman, best known to our generation as Severus Snape, the man who hid a heart of gold under a granite face, left us this year, as did Muhammad Ali, who was so fearsome that he could even make medicine sick, and Gene Wilder, the first Willy Wonka and The Frisco Kid. We lost political leaders like Antonin Scalia and Shimon Peres, and great thinkers and humanitarians like Elie Weisel.
Though Heraclitus said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice,” and the only thing we can rely on is change, there did seem to be one other solid bet this year: things could always get worse.
On November 16th, the Oxford English Dictionary announced their word of the year, meant to capture the dialogue and language of the past twelve months. Their pick: “post-truth.” The term is most often applied to politics, and to the trend — from both voters and politicians — to rely on flimsy emotional appeals instead of the solid bedrock of policy and fact. For most people, it couldn’t have more accurately summed up the past year, and not just in terms of politics. We seem to be living in a post-truth era, a time when everyone would rather dwell in echo chambers of their own making than confront an opposing viewpoint or an uncomfortable truth.
As some rush to bang the Orwellian gong even louder, I offer up a different dystopia, one that seems more aligned with our current state of affairs: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We don’t need the fearsome Big Brother that oppresses Winston and Julia. In our era of post-truth, the velvet touch is more effective than the bare-knuckle approach. We’re all distracted by soma, which spins us away into “lunar eternity,” some version of reality where the problematic implications of this year’s tumult doesn’t seem quite so troubling. “If ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts.”
That has been our year: a tangled mess of pain, confusion, contention and divisiveness. Faced with this, what should we do? We could, of course, give up. We could dive into the pool of soma and dwell in a hazy, rose-colored place where there is only that vague sense of well-being. Or we could put on our blinders and retreat even further to our allotted tribes, leaving an ever wider space between us all.
But my Literature major programming has kicked in and, as a bibliophile, I’m going to take my marching orders from books. 1984 reminded me that “it’s not easy to become sane,” and Huxley knows that “most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.”
This past year has been an exercise in struggling for sanity and in realizing how much I was taking for granted. Where do we go from here, you ask? In Brave New World, the Controller tells John the Savage that “‘we prefer to do things comfortably.’ But I don’t want comfort,’” John cries. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” What he wants, says the Controller, is “the right to be unhappy.”
2016 has been the year in which I embraced my right to be unhappy. But I’m not going to sit with the weight of that right on my chest. I won’t let it fester. Because the Controller said something else too: “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”
We’re about to head out into the brave new world of 2017, and there’s no telling what may come. But one thing is certain: more than ever, we’re going to need the connective power of words. Some may tell you that it’s too late, that we already live in an Orwellian, soma-muddled, post-truth apocalypse. I’m tempted to believe them: too tempted, in fact.
After such a surreal year, it’s only right to look to a surrealist for some guidance. Playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “If you look after words you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos…you can nudge the world a little.” So I’m turning my back on the tempting prospects of apathy and anger and isolationism. Instead, I’m turning toward that chaotic space in between myself and others, and I’m going to do my best to build bridges across it. It’s not easy to become sane. It will probably be painful. But the alternative is far more dangerous than grappling with uncomfortable truths.
Nudge the world a little.