Why jailed teenager Matthew Woods reminds me of Orwell’s “Tom Parsons”, by Dominic Cavendish
The digital world is in many ways a marvellous thing. For instance, in the time it would roughly take to read the blurb on the back of Nineteen Eighty-Four I can skim through an e-text of the novel and discover that Orwell only uses the term “thoughtcrime” 11 times – which is faintly remarkable given how great a hold the phrase has had on the public imagination and how often it is used in the media. For the record, excluding the appendix, the term “Thought Police” is used rather more, some 37 times. The word “offensive”, in the sense of giving offence, barely at all – one of Winston’s co-workers at the Ministry of Truth, “Ampleforth”, is tasked with providing “definitive texts” of poems “which had become ideologically offensive”. Oh, and the word “prosecution” is entirely absent.
One of the many chilling moments in the novel comes when Winston encounters his erstwhile neighbour Tom Parsons in a cell, prior to being hauled off for interrogation. Parsons has been swooped on for committing a thoughtcrime and will gamely submit to his punishment, like all good Party members. Asked by Winston whether he is guilty, he answers instantly in the affirmative. ““Of course I’m guilty!” cried Parsons with a servile glance at the telescreen. “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” His frog-like face grew calmer, and even took on a slightly sanctimonious expression. “Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man,” he said sententiously. “It’s insidious. It can get hold of you without your even knowing it. Do you know how it got hold of me? In my sleep! Yes, that’s a fact. There I was, working away, trying to do my bit – never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all. And then I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying? “Down with Big Brother!” Yes, I said that! Said it over and over again, it seems. Between you and me, old man, I’m glad they got me before it went any further. Do you know what I’m going to say to them when I go up before the tribunal? “Thank you,” I’m going to say, “thank you for saving me before it was too late.””
Parsons’s grotesque gratitude is part of the comic horror of the scene. Confronted with evidence that somewhere deep inside him lies an instinct to revolt against the totalitarian regime he has been brainwashed into loyally serving, he aligns himself with his oppressors. His inmost thought is, to his mind, an error in need of eradication. There’s just the suggestion that he is playing up to the cameras – that he will relish the medicine of his punishment because it’s the least worst option, but even so Orwell’s insight is acute. What should be grounds for hope – that all of us have buried within us a moral sense – is grounds for despair: the human instinct will express itself and by whatever means it does, however it betrays itself, it will come into conflict with the greater opposing, dehumanising force of the State. Parsons is bovine but his case is the same as that of the most coolly rational intellectual – whatever tools to self-censorship one deploys, some slip-up will be made. Humans are fallible; the law, in oppressive societies such as Orwell envisaged, inflexible.
I thought of Parsons this week on reading about the case of Matthew Woods, the unemployed 19-year-old from Lancashire sentenced to 12 weeks in a young offenders’ institution, under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, for reproducing “jokes” about April Jones and Madeleine McCann on his Facebook page. The new unwritten cultural code that states that to participate fully in modern society, people should “share” thoughts, opinions, and intimate details via social media seems to be reaping a continual harvest of unfortunates who through their own crassness, insensitivity or maliciousness are falling foul of a law whose boundaries even those expert in judicial matters are struggling to ascertain. As John Kampfner in the Guardian wrote: “Woods pleaded guilty to sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive. In mitigation, his lawyer cited a “moment of drunken stupidity”, but the presiding magistrate said the comments were so “abhorrent” he deserved the longest sentence the court could hand down.”
I don’t want to re-hash all the better online articles that have appeared recently on this and similar cases, which include the community sentence handed out to a Yorkshire man, Azhar Ahmed, for expressing the view that British soldiers in Afghanistan “should die and go to hell”, and the man from Liverpool arrested for setting up a Facebook group praising the alleged killer of the Manchester police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. Those seeking a quick resume would do well to read Kampfner and Joshua Rosenberg in the Guardian, Christopher Williams in the Telegraph, and maybe also Chortle for an explicit provocative take on the subject by comedy writer Liam Mullone.
My intention here is not to defend any of the culprits from opprobrium, but to ponder what Mullone describes forthrightly as “fluffy-headed fascism”. You could argue that bringing in Orwell is irrelevant because the State he describes is hell-bent on patrolling the most private areas of thought, whereas the instances of those who have fallen foul of the UK law relate to examples of public communication – however modified by the particular digital forum in question.
One can get Orwell “fatigue” – so often is he cited in debates about individual freedom, and yet I think it’s entirely legitimate to invoke the spectre of his greatest dystopian fiction in looking at this issue. The function of social media entities such as Facebook in effect is to tap private thought, to speed up the moment between interior impulse and sefl-publication – albeit on an ostensibly voluntary basis; before you post an update, or tweet a pensee, no pop-up screen appears warning you of the judicial consequences of remarks that someone else might find offensive, let alone might break the law in terms of incitement or harassment. The underlying assumption is that these media facilitate and promote the right to freedom of expression. What they don’t do is flag up the paradox that the digital mechanism which does this can identify, track and bring to “justice” those who contravene ideas of acceptable behaviour or discourse among an audience they may not even be aware they are addressing.
In short, where Orwell envisaged a nightmare scenario in which it is impossible to be individually minded and not be at odds with the orthodoxies of the State, the world we appear to be bringing upon ourselves may be different in organisation but no less nightmarish in complexion. Charlie Skelton, writing about the Woods case in the Guardian, points out that the vigilante violence threatened against the teenager was itself deployed as evidence of the “crime” committed: “The chairman of the bench at Chorley magistrates court, Bill Hudson, explained why this resulted in a custodial sentence: “The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused… In other words, the “public outrage” is evidence of the gross offensiveness (which constitutes the crime). The offence caused is proof of the offence.”
Take the implications of this to an extreme and you have the makings of satire every bit as acidic as Orwell’s. Skelton notes: “It’s a rationale praised by comedy writers the Dawson Bros: “If a joke has offended even one solitary person,” they say, “the perpetrator should be jailed without trial. A sketch about a dead parrot will not be funny to someone mourning the passing of a beloved bird. Jail the Monty Python six. A skit about gardening implements will sicken anyone whose relative was impaled on a fork handle. Jail Corbett and send Barker’s gravestone to landfill. And a man falling through an open bar hatch will deeply offend the countless people who’ve lost loved ones to lethal pub mishaps. Jail David Jason.”
The newfound digital freedoms we are enjoying, with all the downsides they may come with in terms of laying the online public open to unpleasantly uncivilised habits of expression, are being turned on their head: the State doesn’t have to come knocking at the door of men like Parsons, it simply has to wait for its unpaid army of eavesdroppers to call such men to account, with the police simply doing the duty of “protecting” the public from outrage. The citizens can tyrannise themselves. Nineteen Eighty-Four, in this respect, is both wide of the mark and scarily bang up-to-date. Discuss.