1984 Part Two: Sanity is Not Statistical

In which I analyse what it means to be sane in the context of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984. 


In my last post, we talked about the theme of humanity as explored in 1984. Today, we are going to talk about another intriguing theme: “Sanity is not statistical,” that is, the idea that you don’t have to be in the majority to be sane.

“The solid world exists”

In the Party, reality is a very malleable thing. All evidence of an event is tracked down and erased, everyone believes it did not happen, and it did not happen. two plus two can equal five if the Party says it does. O’Brien says that if he wished to, he could float up off the floor like a soap bubble.

Before Winston is changed, his concept of reality is a lot more solid and based on what he can see with his eyes.

The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold onto that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.

This is how you most likely think of reality. We rely heavily on what we see. (Think on such expressions as “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or “I saw it with my own two eyes!” or “Seeing is believing.”) It seems logical to trust what we see. Unless we are under the influence of something or what we have seen is particularly unusual, we don’t think to question what we see. But in Winston’s world, this belief in a solid reality is insanity.

Minority of One

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.

This immediately made me remember a case study I read in DSM-IV Case Book. It was about a mother whose unusual beliefs regarding medical treatment almost resulted in the death of her baby. (This particular study is found on pages 10-13, in case anyone would like to look it up.) I remember reading the case study and thinking that this woman definitely suffered from psychosis. Her belief that the doctors were trying to poison her child by giving it iron immediately made me jump to the conclusion that she was having delusions of persecution. The discussion box at the end of the study really stuck with me and made me think. It concluded that it is unclear whether or not this woman should receive a diagnosis at all. The reason being that, while she was influenced by non-traditional views, some of her views were shared by a vocal minority. She had arrived at her beliefs through talking to friends and reading pamphlets. So the issue here is where is the line drawn between identification with a subculture that holds unconventional views, and an actual delusion? Does the fact that your view is only shared by a minority automatically make it delusional? What an intriguing issue, and definitely one that is relevant in the context of 1984.

The fact is that usually the majority view is held for a reason, and certainly the discussion of that case study wasn’t suggesting that the woman’s views were scientifically sound. But the point is that being in a minority does not in and of itself make your view wrong. You could be simply ahead of your times.

At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong.

The issue, then, is not how many people share you view, but whether it is true.

Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.

This quote is interesting because it raises another question. Is it possible for the whole world to embrace delusional views, leaving only one person stubbornly clinging to the truth, and thereby to sanity?

Can the Majority Be Wrong?

The Party encourages people to delude themselves, first into believing that something that is true isn’t, and then into forgetting the process of making themselves believe that, so that the end result is that the person believes that he has always believed that and it has always been true.

…it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.

Just because everyone in the Party practises this does not make it sane. I think it’s interesting when Winston reflects on what O’Brien said about floating off the floor like a soap bubble:

Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of the water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.”

The fact that a hallucination is shared doesn’t make it any more real.

I think it’s also interesting to note the Two Minutes Hate near the beginning of the book. All of these people shouting and throwing things and reacting in a generally savage manner to what they see on the screen is a little frightening to read about.

In a lucid moment, Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair.

(Bold letters mine.) I like this sentence because it shows how Winston is swept along in this without even having a choice. The phrase “in a lucid moment” is interesting because it implies that Winston is not lucid during the Two Minutes Hate, and neither is anyone else. They’re all just following the same deluded mob-spirit.

This majority is made up of lunatics.

“the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself.”

Even though Winston knows these things about reality to be true, he finds it hard to hold to these ideas when faced with O’Brien’s twisted logic. Because O’Brien is so intelligent, it’s hard to refute the things he says, or even to believe he’s wrong.

What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?

When someone who is intellectually superior to yourself holds a view, no matter how nonsensical that view, you can’t help but question. This person is smarter than you, so how could they be the one who is wrong?

There was no idea that he had ever had, or could have, that O’Brien had not long ago known, examined, and rejected. His mind contained Winston’s mind. But in that case, how could it be true that O’Brien was mad? It must be he, Winston, who was mad.

Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t mean they can’t also be delusional. O’Brien’s ideas about reality existing only in the human mind are obviously untrue. We know they are untrue, and Winston knows they are untrue. But they are hard to refute when he speaks so authoritatively and makes arguments that almost make sense.

That’s why an intelligent lunatic is such a frightening idea.

What Does It All Matter?

We have now examined two themes from 1984. Both are intriguing themes that give us a lot to think about. But there’s another question we can raise: where does the ending of the novel fit in, if at all, in our discussion of these particular themes? That is, does it make a difference that Winston is unable to stay human or hold onto his sanity? Does it change what we take away from the book? I have some ideas, but I would much rather hear your thoughts on the matter.

Have a lovely day!
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15 thoughts on “1984 Part Two: Sanity is Not Statistical

  1. Your piece on Winston’s struggles with the persuasive O’Brien was very interesting to me. Orwell gave Winston the framework of mathematics to hang his hopes for truth in a world where a minority seek to rule by deluding everyone. People believe rightly that 1984 is a novel about a dystopian world of surveillance and this is partly true, but I believe his main target was the right to hold beliefs as true when everyone else is deluding themselves. We live in a world where traditional media that once evaluated the truth of assertions is going out of business. People now post the most gratuitous lies on social media and are believed without question. It’s horrifying to think that the world has fallen into a situation where people refuse to doubt or reconsider their ideas. People are digging in. And so, while Winston hung on to mathematics so doggedly, large numbers of people are doing the same with ideas that aren’t supported by empirical analysis. I think there are things that are subjectively true, Winston’s love for Julia is a subjective truth, for example. And it makes me wonder if perhaps that was why Winston thought that maybe it would be better to be understood rather than loved because he thought being understood was more objectively true and, therefore, something you could believe more assuredly.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! (This is exactly why I need to go through my spam filter every once in a while—for some reason this was hiding in there.) It’s always nice to discuss 1984 from a different angle than the “Big Brother’s watching” one, which is all that many people seem to remember if they’ve read about it or are familiar with it. That’s certainly interesting and relevant, but to me, it’s not the MOST interesting or the most relevant.

      It’s so odd to be living in a society where the idea of an objective truth has fallen so far out of fashion. I just watched a fascinating TED talk last week that I think is very relevant. Here’s a link if you’re interested: https://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_lipstadt_behind_the_lies_of_holocaust_denial. The basic point she makes in the video is that we need to get away from this idea that all viewpoints and beliefs have equal validity, and whatever opinion you have can be true for you if you want it to be. I thought it was such an excellent point that needed to be made. We don’t all live in our own alternate universes. This whole idea of a “Personal Truth” is so dangerous, and I think that video highlights the extreme and deeply harmful things this has led to. Like Winston figured out, if he and O’Brien both imagine the same thing, that doesn’t mean it really happened. It’s a shared hallucination, but it’s still as hallucination.

      And for me, that’s the most important message of 1984. Because without some basic objective truths, reality falls apart.

      Also, I really like your point about being understood being more objectively true, as opposed to the subjective truth of loving someone else. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and sorry for the delayed (and wordy) response!

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  2. Just came out of the 1984 play on Broadway. Powerful stuff. My takeaway is that reality for each of us can only be experiential, not susceptible to some sort of shared consensus, or search for the objective, because that consensus will always be controlled by the likes of the Obriens – or News Corporation or other consensus manufacturer. A little like a computer game that is being coded as the player plays. Your coded experience will never feel like any others, so the only meaning comes from the emotional experience that you generate through your interaction with other players. This is all there is as it is all you can own and know to be real. It can’t be owned by the state. Winston smith chose a state imposed delusion to escape the pain of torture but he was still left with the reality of his love for Julia. Not even their mutual betrayal could erode it.

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    1. I’ve never seen the play—I’d be interested to see how they went about adapting it for that medium. Reading the book, I’ve never thought about Winston being left with the reality of his love for Julia. I think I’ll go back and look at it again now. Thank you for sharing your insights!

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  3. Terrific insights (as always)! I couldn’t help but think how this psychological methodology is true for crowds at sporting events and how their bias towards a particular team clouds the general judgement when a referee make a call that they don’t like. A call against a simple infraction of sporting rules leads to lunacy in the geers and reactions of the offending team.
    In addition there are similar instances in children who come from abused or neglected homes. They believe they are treated so terribly because their caretakers are smarter than they are and know how they are supposed to be cared for (or in tragic cases, not cared for). They grow up believing that the falsehoods of abuse are how things are for everyone and that is how the majority lives.
    Again, thank you for your perspective on this classic. It is well written and impactful!

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  4. This post really got me thinking!
    It reminds me of the saying ‘collective madness is sanity’, the idea that if the majority of us are insane, there is somehow no problem. The minority could be the rational and intelligent ones questioning the workings of society, but because they do now believe or act like the others do, they’re treated differently.
    I think it makes all the more difference that Winston isn’t able to retain his sanity, as it just shows that the majority won’t be defeated and it reinforces the idea of the tyranny of the majority. Clearly, Winston wasn’t destined to succeed in his mission of revolution, he was fated to lose the fight. And that’s a very bleak message Orwell’s put across there.

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    1. That saying is very applicable here. Intriguing thought; see, I think in many ways the outcome of this book doesn’t affect the over all message, except perhaps to make it all the more bleak and terrifying, but I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. Thank you for commenting, I think you’re quite correct.

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  5. The idea that just because we believe in something that’s an unpopular opinion doesn’t mean we’re “off our rockers” is a great point. For example — I have a learning disorder — it’s a fact, a brain chemistry thing that I was born with, and it can’t be cured by diet or herbs or even medication. Do all these things help? Yeah. But I firmly believe that just throwing pills at a problem isn’t necessarily the way to go. I take headache pills for my migraines, because the result is quick and direct, and I feel better. But I’ve decided not to take anything for ADD right now — after trying a few prescriptions and not feeling the benefits outweighed the side effects. Just because I disagree with a lot of doctors doesn’t mean I’m crazy.

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    1. Great application! I relate to this because I was on medication for my depression and anxiety for a time, but decided to stop it because I didn’t like the way I felt on it. Only you can know whether or not something helps you, and just because it helps most people doesn’t mean it helps you.

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      1. I have mixed feelings about it. I’m glad when something works for others who have been struggling. But I don’t like the automatic assumption some people make that what works for some will work for everyone.

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  6. I don’t think it makes a difference; well, maybe it does for Winston – or, it would make a difference to Winston that we was brainwashed if he wasn’t brainwashed. It’s a bit of Catch-22-vibe, this problem with sanity in deeply insane society. Although, for a reader, it does not change anything; yes, it’s pessimistic and the Party always wins, but knowing the entire story, all of the techniques that were used by O’Brien, makes the reader quite impervious to further manipulation, I think. I might be wrong.
    Anyway, my biggest question after reading the ending was this: what did happen to Julia that made her betray Winston?

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    1. I am inclined to agree with you. Personally I don’t think it really makes a difference. I think the message still stands regardless of the outcome. That isn’t something I’ve ever thought of before. Now I am wondering what was in room 101 for Julia. Interesting question. Thanks for your comment!

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