(Bloomberg Opinion) -- George Orwell’s “1984” is the greatest fictional account of authoritarian leadership — the most astute, the most precise, the most attuned to human psychology.
One of its defining chapters explores the Two Minutes Hate, which helps establish and maintain Big Brother’s regime.
As Orwell describes it, the Hate begins with a flash of a face on a large screen. It is Emmanuel Goldstein, “the Enemy of the People.” His is “a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable,” and also unmistakably foreign. It produces fear and disgust.
Goldstein defines disloyalty to the nation and (what is the same thing) the regime: “He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity.” Goldstein is responsible for heresies and treacheries of all kinds. He does not love his country.
In the first 30 seconds of the Hate, Goldstein’s voice is heard as he denounces the party and calls for freedom of multiple kinds. “He was abusing Big Brother,” and “he was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought.”
The result is to produce rage and fear in the audience, and to do so immediately. Goldstein is a serious threat. Wherever he is, he commands a kind of shadow army, a network of conspirators. He is the author of a terrible book, including all the heresies.
In the second minute of the Hate, people become frenzied. They leap and shout, trying to drown out Goldstein’s maddening voice. Children join in the shouting.
Orwell’s hero, Winston, finds himself unable to resist. He, too, begins to shout, and also to kick violently. On his part, this was no mere show. “The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part,” Orwell writes, “but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”
No pretense was necessary: “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”
Despite loathing Big Brother, Winston felt his feelings “changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock” against threats. And as his hatred mounts, it turns sexual. Winston fantasizes about raping and murdering the girl behind him.
At that point, the Hate rises to its climax. Goldstein’s voice becomes that of an actual bleating sheep, and for a moment, his face is transformed into that of a sheep. Big Brother’s face then fills the screen, powerful, comforting, and mysteriously calm.
Big Brother’s actual words are not heard, but they are felt, as a kind of reassurance. At that point the Party’s three slogans appear on the screen:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
A member of the audience seems to pray to Big Brother. For 30 seconds the audience chants in his honor, in “an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.” Winston chants with the rest, for “it was impossible to do otherwise.”
The Two Minutes Hate is a distillation of a common tactic of certain leaders, mostly in authoritarian nations, but in democracies as well. They focus attention on enemies, outsiders, foreigners and heretics — on those who seek to destroy society’s fabric.
What makes the Two Minutes Hate so insidious is that even for those who oppose it, and see it for what it is, it tends to get under the skin. The sheer repetition of an accusation — against Emmanuel Goldstein, Hillary Clinton, Ilhan Omar, Muslims, immigrants or the press — can make it difficult not to feel, in some part of one’s mind, that the accusation is correct.
Actually it’s even worse.
As Orwell depicts it, the Hate liberates something in the human soul. It is not as if the relevant emotions — “fear and vindictiveness” — are unrecognizable, even to those who thought they had no animus against Goldstein. By unleashing “a hideous ecstasy,” embodied in chants of various kinds, authoritarian leaders aim to obliterate one thing above all: what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
To contact the author of this story: Cass R. Sunstein at email@example.com
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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