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Despite the abundance of publications on various international conflicts, a number of aspects concerning the experience of civilian populations in the occupied territories remain obscure. The sufferings experienced by the victims are at the forefront of the published descriptions. Yet, silence remains regarding the future of these populations who had lost most of their property. Historians’ mistrust has followed a restrictive approach. Beyond the question of the veracity that characterizes the relationship between history and literature, it is often difficult to apprehend broader social and cultural phenomena by interpreting a literary work. The conjunction of historiographical sharing and the literalization of global issues leads many historians and authors to question the very status of narratives as a source and to highlight their link, not only with the experience of history, but also with literature. Although George Orwell’s novel, 1984, is an indictment of the injustices of the empire and a scathing criticism of the detrimental way in which imperialism dehumanizes the conquered as much as the conqueror, he does not create a real bridge between fiction and historical reality, at least as far as social justice is concerned, including the nature of oppression, political coercion as well as individual freedom.
First of all, the novel 1984 written by George Orwell presents a society affected by power, corruption and control. Orwell indirectly suggests that power, when given to the government ultimately becomes corrupt, resulting in a form of oppression. In the narrative along with Eritrea, a small African country, this oppression is reflected by a systemic injustice. The novel demonstrates a variety of methods used by the government in order to control its citizens, including dehumanization. It is, in fact, mentioned that “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” Faced with the inability to achieve long-term results and thus, definitive power, it quickly becomes evident that one needs to eliminate any mental opposition. Oceania’s government therefore attempts to control its citizens’ minds and consciously chooses what it wants to share and, on the other hand, conceal or even eliminate from their reality. Through omitting what can be frowned upon, the society is left with nothing to question, and above all nothing to analyze. This manipulation allows oppression to be overlooked since no one is able to think critically and thus question the functioning of the society, which seems to be stable and well balanced. By eradicating all opportunities for inquiry, the government dehumanizes the citizens and creates a systemic oppression that allows him to maintain power.
Although the methods used by the government may seem to be rather extreme, the reality that Eritrean citizens experience in today’s world is very similar to the one described in Orwell’s novel. At first sight, Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, seems to be a charming city. Yet behind this setting hides a much less charming reality. Everything from television, newspapers, radio and even personal phones are controlled by the government. According to Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends the freedom of the press, “[they] do nothing but relay the regime’s belligerent and ultra-nationalist discourse”. Not to mention that Eritrea is the only African country to have no privately owned news media as well as officials whose sole obligation is to censor any information that goes against the government or that concerns the outside world. This said, when oppression is structural and internalized, rather than the result of a few people’s choices, one finds itself automatically imprisoned in a cycle in which the dominant is granted privileges and a supremacy that comes inevitably with power. In other words, when oppression is embedded in certain unquestioned norms, habits, and institutional rules within a society, such as Eritrea, it is very difficult, if not impossible to abolish the system in place. In this case, even literature such as the novel 1984 does that have the power to change the injustices in the history of a country in addition to the mentality of the population, whether consciously or unconsciously. In brief, as far as the nature of oppression, depicted in the novel and illustrated by Eritrea through a systemic injustice and dehumanization, it is unreasonable to think that George Orwell would be able to alter the ideal of country leaders as well as the functioning of societies.
Secondly, political coercion, the threat or use of punitive measures such as fear against others is a significant and relative factor in the novel 1984 along with the suffering of the people living in Eritrea. In Orwell’s novel, there is a perpetual state of war between the nations of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The enemy of the conflict is unclear and the battlefields are located in elusive and distant lands. Yet, this perpetual war has not been put forward without any intentions. In fact, it is a way for the government to justify the physical and psychological control of the population, while keeping them fearful. It is also an excuse for the nation’s failings and shortcomings, putting the mask of the enemy on others rather than on the government. This is very well shown through one of their mottos: ‘War is Peace”. Having a shared enemy unites the people of Oceania and places the focus on the outside. This helps to prevent them from becoming consciously aware of the problems that prevail in their own society. Through this presumed conflict, the Party gains control as well as power since it gives the people someone other than the government to blame. The Eritrean government, meanwhile, justifies the national service for life with an unresolved border conflict between its country and Ethiopia. Indeed, after graduation, all citizens must perform national service in the public sector, usually in the military and that for the rest of their life. Amnesty International is shedding new light on the brutal methods used by the army against those who try to escape. ‘People who try to escape national service are detained in deplorable conditions and often placed in underground cells or in containers,’ the NGO wrote in a report released in 2015. If they are not found, members of their families are incarcerated for them ‘with the risk of disappearing forever,’ says Amnesty, who is trying to denounce a penitentiary system of unimaginable cruelty: ‘In most cases, families of prisoners are not informed of their whereabouts and often do not hear from their relatives.’ Hence the justifications of the government that uses a war that no longer exists to control the population and make it do what it wants at a minimal cost. This only shows that Orwell failed to awaken critical thinking, thereby changing the foundations of an entire society. In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered as a dystopia, being a fictional narrative that depicts an imaginary society organized in such a way that it prevents its members from achieving happiness. This said, no matter where in the world, man is fundamentally seeking for a state of happiness. It is therefore unthinkable, if not unbearable, to consider a future that restricts man from this natural need. Thus, fiction ultimately creates a separation between literature and the society in which one lives, often knowing nothing but the reality that has been given to him. In short, fiction is a rhetoric that traces a definitive line between the characters of the novel and the reality, preventing Orwell to influence in this case the actions of the governments concerning political coercion, conjointly with the response from the population.
Thirdly, whereas freedom is the very concept that distinguishes human beings from animals, historians as well as writers, such as George Orwell seems to question the role of governments in regard to individual freedom. In the novel 1984, George Orwell predicts a world in which human rights, such as freedom do not exist. Everyone has to obey the government that controls what can be said and on the other hand, the subjects or words that are forbidden. Oceania’s government has also applied thoughtcrime, which is a principle according to which one cannot think on his own and can only think what the government tells or allows him to think. In fact, O’Brien told Winston, the main character of the novel that “Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” Freedom of speech is limited simply because thought can lead to the destruction of the government. No one speaks up against it since no one has the chance to make up a thought about it. Once again, the lack of freedom allows the government to obtain absolute control and consequently, power over the society. Eritrea, on the other hand, does not seem to grasp the principle of freedom, which is still non-existent. It has at least 10,000 political prisoners, many of whom live in atrocious and unimaginable conditions and were condemned for declaring their thoughts on the Eritrean regime and highlighting the injustices implemented by the government. Not to mention that political opposition is forbidden, independent media are silenced and religious minorities persecuted. In fact, according to Reporter without Borders, Eritrea is the worst country in the world for attacks on freedom, behind North Korea. Although there is no war, Eritrea has the reputation of a sinister dictatorship, characterized by its lack of individual freedom. 27 years after the liberation from the Ethiopian power, the country has not gained any freedom, although it hides behind the facade of socialism. Throughout the novel 1984, it is obvious that Orwell considers that one of the preconditions for the rise of totalitarianism is the emergence of a collectivist social structure, allowing the centralization of power and thus an absolute control over the society. He therefore wanted the rise of a democratic socialism, advocating for a planned economy, the nationalization of all major industries, a radical reduction of the inequality of wealth and the respect for civil liberties such as freedom of expression. On the other hand, what Orwell did not evaluate is the lack of examples, past or present, of countries that have successfully adopted democratic socialism. Many have adopted an oligarchical collectivism, a totalitarian regime in wanting to appropriate a democratic socialism. Oligarchical collectivism is a system in which an elite centralizes power using force and oppression. Once in power, these oligarchs eliminate not only economic freedoms, which socialists like Orwell prised, but also civil liberties. This can be observed in particular in the Eritrean regime. In short, it is impossible for Orwell to succeed in influencing the ideal society of others, especially when it comes to freedom, if the regime he preached only came into being in fictitious stories.
In conclusion, although George Orwell’s greatest motive is the ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”, he does not successfully achieve this with his novel 1984. Whether it is through the nature of oppression, political coercion or individual freedom, the country of Eritrea has made it possible to highlight the flaws in the relationship between literature and social justice, or in other words, the political reality of current societies. That said, rather than simply condemn or refute a testimony said to be worthless because it contains fictitious elements or would be the product of an elite unrelated to popular realities, it is undoubtedly necessary to question the reasons that motivate authors to move away from strictly documentary writing or from historical politics.
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