In the book 1984, written by George Orwell, there is a group portrayed that is similar to what society would call a cult. A cult is defined as a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. Totalism is described as the principle of complete and unrestricted power in government.
The books main themes include language as mind control and psychological and physical intimidation and manipulation. In the book, the people live in a city which is very out of the ordinary and also overseen by a charismatic leader, Big Brother. This society, portrayed by George Orwell has all the elements of a cult-like and totalist society.
Oceania, which is the Americas, the Atlantic islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa, is where Winston Smith lives in the book 1984. Ingsoc, newspeak for English Socialism, is the political ideology of Oceania. “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” is the slogan of Oceania, which is displayed on the pyramid of the Ministry of Truth. The Ministry of Truth is where they change books to reflect the party’s ideology. “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis” (Lifton). Big Brother used this method to break down the party’s complex theories and put them into one phrase. “War is peace” is the part that keeps all the people of Oceania united. Big Brother makes the people of Oceania think that they are in a state of constant war. By making the people think this, the people stay united against the other countries that “threaten” them. “Freedom is slavery” is used to scare people into remaining loyal to Big Brother. The party is saying that anyone who strays from Big Brother will surely fail. “Ignorance is strength” means that the inability of the people to realize how the party is keeping power is how the party stays in power.
This type of language puts people on a leash and the more they repeat the party’s slogans, the shorter the leash gets. Eventually, a person’s independence and strength becomes so weak that they live in a world of fear, forced upon them by false words and promises. Once this happens, the followers will believe anything that the party tells them, even if it makes no sense at all. In 1984, the Ministry of Peace is in charge of waging perpetual war, which is the complete opposite of what someone would think. This is what we call “doublespeak”. Doublespeak is when someone uses language that says one thing, but means the other. Most people would think the Ministry of Peace would be in charge of keeping peace between Oceania and the other countries. The Ministry of Truth was in charge of changing books to reflect the party’s ideology. If it were actually the Ministry of Truth, then it wouldn’t be feeding lies to the people of Oceania. The Ministry of Love is in charge of torturing people, which is also ironic. Winston never goes into the building until the end, when he is kept prisoner.
Just like in 1984, cults control the flow of information within their community. Milieu control is the method that they most commonly use. Basically, milieu control is the control of all communication within an environment. “In such an environment individual autonomy becomes a threat to the group. There is an attempt to manage an individual’s inner communication. Milieu control is maintained and expressed by intense group process, continuous psychological pressure, and isolation by geographical distance, unavailability of transportation, or even physical restraint. Often the group creates an increasingly intense sequence of events such as seminars, lectures and encounters which makes leaving extremely difficult, both physically and psychologically. Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call doubling: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable time. When the milieu control is lifted, elements of the earlier self may be reasserted” (Lifton). In the book 1984, Winston tries to be different from everyone else, but it isn’t possible since it is so noticeable when one person is different among thousands. Winston is involved in intense group processes such as the “two-minutes hate”. The two-minutes hate is a daily video that is viewed by everyone in Oceania. It starts out with the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, once a leader of Oceania, but now a depicted traitor. This always gets the people worked up because they hate him so much. Winston states that it is impossible not to join in with the frenzy and hate towards Goldstein. Then, Big Brother appears and everyone returns back to work. Even the children are involved in group processes. The children are encouraged to spy on their parents and turn them in if they are committing any crimes against Big Brother. Cults try to force their beliefs upon the group as early as possible. Along with intense group process, the people of Oceania are also controlled by continuous psychological pressure. The words “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU!” guard the people of Oceania. The people don’t even know if Big Brother is really watching them, but the words alone seem threatening to them. Big Brother puts the people of Oceania in a state of fear. They are scared of what they can’t even see, and this pressures them to not do anything that would get them in trouble with Big Brother. No one in Oceania is allowed to transport themselves around. The only way to get around is by using the train, which is controlled by someone working for Big Brother. Winston encounters milieu control by physical restraint at the end of the novel when he is being held in the Ministry of Love. He is put in a cell for longer than he even knows and at the end of his time in the cell, he is tortured. After this experience, he is once again controlled physically and psychologically by Big Brother.
Cults are extremely good at regulating the flow of information that could enter the community or exit. There are many things that a cult leader can do to regulate the flow of information. In 1984, Big Brother uses propaganda, which is the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth where he takes the role of a propaganda officer. This job requires him to change historical records to match what the party says happened. In cults, individuals have very limited access to newspapers, television, or a radio. The reason for this is because if a recruit gets knowledge from an outside source, then they might not fully believe the information that the cult is trying to force them to believe.
Eventually, the ideas of the cult control the party member’s thoughts. As a result of this, the party member isn’t able to communicate the truth to themselves. Once the cult has control of a party member, it is almost impossible for the party member to regain his/her beliefs prior to when they first joined. Winston experienced this type of control when he finally got out of being held in the Ministry of Love. Before he is taken into the Ministry of Love, Winston says, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” Then, after being kept imprisoned and tortured, Winston writes on a cafe table covered in dust, “2 + 2 = 5”. This shows that no matter what a member of a cult does to try and believe that the teaching of the cult are false, they will always end up believing every word.
There are many characteristics of a cult. One characteristic is economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the people being ruled. During the novel, Winston has an affair with a woman named Julia. Julia worked in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth and enjoys sex. The Party turns sex into a crime so the members of the party turn their sexual frustration into anger against the party’s enemies. There is a cult called Heaven’s Gate that forced sexual rules upon its members also. The two leaders, Applewhite and Nettles, were in a homosexual relationship together, but they had no sexual desires amongst each other. “Together, Applewhite and Nettles would recruit hundreds of followers around the country and require them to dress alike, cut their hair and repress any sexual identity. And together, they would concoct a theology in which the human body was a mere vessel for an asexual soul that could find salvation only in its home in outer space. “Applewhite was so alienated from his homosexuality that he was teaching people not to have sex,” said Lewis of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, who has studied Applewhite and Nettles’ group for more than 20 years. “He would put people of opposite sexes together and force them to learn to become neutral, nonsexual.” Followers of the cult in the mid-1970s were subjected to strict discipline including hard rules, “No sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing,” according to Balch, who infiltrated the group for two months in 1975″ (Fisher and Pressley). The Heavens gate cult has rules against sex just like the people of Oceania. The only difference is that Big Brother realizes that sex is needed to keep a population steady. In Oceania, sex is used for procreation, but in the Heaven’s Gate, sex is non-existent.
Coercive persuasion, also known as thought reform, is a way for a cult to trap people using psychological and environmental control that don’t depend on physical coercion. Big Brother used this method on the people of Oceania, but they had no idea. They were told that they were fighting wars with other countries, but not one of the people could say that they saw it with their own eyes. They have also seen Big Brother on posters and on the two-minutes hate, but no one has ever seen him in real life.
The most noticeable characteristic of a cult is a charismatic leader who becomes an object of worship to the people they control. Everywhere the people go in Oceania, they are followed by an image of Big Brother. This doesn’t really bother the people since because it is all that they’ve known throughout their whole lives. The same thing happened in Germany when it was taken over by Adolf Hitler. Everywhere they turned, there was a picture to remind them of who controlled their lives.
Mystical Manipulation gives the group members the impression that they are God’s elect. They think that they are destined to be in the group because they have something that the group needs. The group creates the illusion that the recruit chose to join the cult as an act of free will. In 1984, each person feels like they are privileged to live in Oceania because nothing has ever happened to them. They are given a specific job to carry out each day and each member feels like they aren’t being controlled. They feel like they aren’t being controlled because Big Brother has made them think that he is protecting them by fighting wars against other countries that the people assume exist. Each of the party members were born into the party, so they don’t know anything about being given a choice.
There are even a few religions that seem to have started out as a cult. These religions started out as small groups of people inspired by a Charismatic leader with unusual religious ideas. Christianity began with a group of Jewish men that accepted and followed the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. These men called him Christ, which translates into “Chosen One”. Another example of religions starting out as a cult is Buddhism. Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, who rejected the principles of Hinduism and found acceptance for his new ideas among a group of disciples. Big Brother never claimed to be the chosen one because he wasn’t taking power for religious purposes.
They called him Big Brother because the name sounds like he would be one to protect his people, but he is just brainwashing them. Big Brother uses the same methods of control that are used by every cult and totalist leader. He uses lies to convince the people that he is protecting them, but he is just putting them on a leash that gets smaller and smaller with each day. He prevents the flow of information within Oceania just like cults makes their own newspaper and books. Not one person has left Oceania and came back to tell about it because if anyone left, they wouldn’t even be able to realize that all they’ve known is false. Now I understand Orwell when he wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”