Shaping the future: Troubling Truth with 1984

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What is truth? What are lies? What can be observed, and to what extent? What happens when the mind is cracked open and splayed out on a stage in a pool of wandering thoughts, subject to anyone and everyone’s analysis and merging with their experiences?

As a shaggy-haired man in a white button-up writes and promptly scratches out an uncertain date, a drop of blood falls from his nose and onto a diary. With an ear-splitting screech and a blast of white light followed by complete darkness, he is suddenly no longer alone – the room is filled with people, sitting comfortably and talking as though nothing more peculiar had happened than a sneeze.

When the man voices his confusion, so do we, in our peculiar language of whispers and furrowed brows. After all, this is no hypothetical, no passive scene that we can only stand by and watch. This is happening right in front of our eyes; we could go up and touch it. What was once not there is there. We accept what does not make sense. Who we are is not only ourselves, but also this man – Winston Smith, a foreign consciousness that we must squeeze uncomfortably into for an hour and forty minutes of terrifying genius.

This is 1984.

The 2017-2018 Center for Ethics theme is Troubling Truth. This theme invites us to question the manner in which we have always thought about facts and the idea of objectivity in a world that seems increasingly difficult to comprehend. Though I attended the play 1984 with the Dana Scholar first-year seminars, one of which centers around George Orwell (the original book’s author), I could not help but connect the show to this central idea of doubt and questioning, of looking up and away and in every direction at once.

In the world of the play, almost nothing is certain. The price of chocolate is raised to twenty grams each day, an event that no one but Winston seems to realize has already happened. This scene is re-staged three times, each time losing something – a few words are dropped, small objects are absent and, the last time, one character is missing, though the impact of his presence is still felt.

The play is peppered with surreal moments like this, in which a seemingly unbendable set becomes a thousand realities at once, switching from an office to a train station to the headquarters of the resistance movement with only a change in lighting or sound effects. It should be noted that the audience is not exempt from the jarring shockwaves of these sudden changes – though the violence shown on stage is, at times, gruesome, there is a kind of violence enacted upon the audience itself in the thrum of the bass that shakes the balcony and the flashes of white that make us close our eyes.

As the first-year seminars discussed, there is an undeniable collapse of the divide that the stage usually creates between actors and viewers. We are both Winston and, by the use of several cameras through which we sometimes view the action, Big Brother, the mysterious controller of 1984’s dystopian society. How do we know who we are? Well, throughout the play, all Winston – and, by extension, the audience – has to do to locate himself is answer one question: Where do you think you are?

This concept of location in a bendable reality is highly prominent in the upcoming Troubling Truth talks. Questions of identity and proximity to issues, moving forward in the current political climate, and adapting narratives of the past to modern standards will take center stage throughout the semester. Speakers like Black Lives Matter Canada co-founder Janaya Khan, transgender activist Susan Stryker and religion professor and author Stephen Prothero are set to provide important insight into the ways that we have the power to individually shape our reality.

Though the truth might not be changeable with the flick of a light switch, the truth as we understand it now might still have a chance at illumination. With the tools provided by these speakers and hundreds of other exploratory sources, including the horrors and warnings put forth by “1984,” the truth of the future might even be bright.

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