In a move that probably has George Orwell either spinning in his grave or saying, “I told you so,” the University of Northampton, England, has put a “trigger warning” on Orwell’s “1984” because it has “explicit material which some students may find offensive and upsetting,” according to a report in The Daily Mail.
For those who didn’t read the book in high school, “1984,” published in 1949, is a dystopian science-fiction story in which a totalitarian state run by the Party and Big Brother, rules over
everyone’s thoughts, monitors everyone’s every move, changes any history the Party doesn’t agree with anymore, and anyone who steps out of line becomes an “unperson” and is dealt with harshly, sometimes disappearing forever with any mention of them ever existing erased. The novel put many terms into our common lexicon, such as “doublethink,” in which a subject is expected to accept two contradictory beliefs as correct, often at odds with their own memories or reality; and “newspeak,” a controlled language that limits the ability to think for yourself and eliminates concepts the Party finds “subversive,” such as personal identity, self-expression and free will.
It is a harsh and difficult story. It has been on Time’s 100 best English-language novels list, Modern Library’s 100 best novels list and, of course, on many high schools’ and colleges’ required reading lists. This is not the first time, nor will it probably be the last, that it has been banned, challenged or at least marked as inappropriate. (The same goes for another of Orwell’s books, “Animal Farm.”)
Orwell wrote many essays upon which “1984” expands, especially on the dangers of obsessive nationalism, propaganda and censorship, and poverty.
None of those ideas is fun to tackle, but college is the prime time for our young people to do that, and to learn not to hide from challenges to their ways of thinking. It is also important for them to learn to face difficult, frightening things, rather than hide from them.
As you might remember, that is exactly what some of the characters in “1984” did, and it led right to the horrific future Orwell imagined.