“You may have a reason why two and two should make five, but they will still make but four.” -Samuel Johnson
We all know, if we’ve even so much as heard of Orwell’s 1984, that a totalitarian government can brainwash its citizens into believing that 2+2=5. Well, maybe it could happen. It would actually be very hard to accomplish. The novel is an exercise in imagining the power of language to erase and impose.And while Orwell’s ’84 does an astounding job at creating a world alien and familiar where the state has coerced us to accepting any lie imaginable, the truth is that it doesn’t have to take an all-powerful oligarchy to do so.
Orwell invites us to a world where everyone and anyone could be led to believe that 2+2=5 even if it goes against their most basic instincts of logic. Doublethink. Fear. Ignorance is peace. Systematic brainwashing through erasure of the private mind.
But one thing we also know, and what Orwell’s novel didn’t address, is how a private mind can be so stubborn that it embraces 2+2=5, no matter what you say to convince them otherwise.
Sometimes that’s the world we live in. Where the government, for all its many failings, actually has no problem with 2+2=4, and actually needs 2+2=4 to provide the services it does provide. And in a world like that, you might run into some people who have convinced themselves that because the government believes that 2+2=4, and the government is at least in some way oppressive, then it must follow that 2+2=22.
After all, if you have a mind of your own, you’ll question authority. Which is a good trait. A strong independent mind will question the idea of authority, look into it, and not take for granted the idea that because someone says they’re in charge of knowledge, they should be. But a strong mind can be wrong. And if they’re willing to challenge one authority, they’re willing to bend to another. Doubt your government? Who did you find as a replacement? Everyone looks to somebody as a source of authority, wisdom, and expertise. And at some point, if you’re willing to submit to them, you’ll believe anything they say.
The thing is, underground groups of self-styled freedom rebels, truth tellers, and independent free thinkers can be just as absurd as know-it-all tyrannical governments. They can be just as susceptible to their own propaganda. Gather enough of them, and you’ve got a dystopia within a dystopia. As of now, the consensus among mathematicians is that 2+2=5. But if a mathematician said otherwise, and called everyone else brainwashed, we would know he was crazy, but what would convince him otherwise? And if he had followers, how many of them could he brainwash?
Dostoevsky pointed out in Notes From Underground that psychologically an individual would be charmed by the falsehood that 2+2=5. Stubbornness would amplify that charm, and the curse would be hard to break. Years before writing his greatest novel, Orwell once wrote, “It is quite possible that we are descending into an age in which two plus two will make five when the Leader says so.” The leader could be a dictator. Or he could just be a Karen with a following. Consider this dialogue:
B: Oh yeah? Says who? All the textbooks? And why is that? What are they hiding?
A: Nothing. If you have two and then two more, that makes four.
B: Funny how you never question that. What are you really hiding? That 2+2=22? If you add the two numbers together, literally put them together, they read as 22. Connect the dots. How come nobody wants to talk about this?
A: Plenty have talked about it. There is consensus among mathematicians and philosophers. There exists no proof that says otherwise. You’re thinking of putting the number 2 besides itself in number slots beside a decimal, which would make 22. I was speaking of the operation of addition.
B: Uh huh. Sure. Where did you learn that? A brainwashing college? Who controls the public schools? The libraries? How deep does this go?
A: As deep as reality. You can literally use your fingers.
B: [counts with fingers] Two. And. Two. Equals. Five. See? That’s 5 words.
A: That’s not how math works. You just said it makes 22, now you’re saying it makes 5. Just to contradict what’s been established.
B: Says who? You? Of course lol I know the truth. NPC!
A: Oh brother.
B: I’ve been doing some research. Anomalous cancellation. Inductive error. Groupthink.
A: You’re just spouting words.
B: Words you’re trying to hide.
A: Not really. I’ll say them too. Anomalous cancellation. Inductive error. Groupthink.
B: Yeah I bet you use them all the time.
A: Where are you going with this?
B: Birds aren’t real.
So yeah. Sometimes 2+2=5 happens to be a government edict. Sometimes it ends up being a conspiracy theory. Thankfully, at least everyone still believes 2+2=4. Everyone I know, anyway. But I guarantee you that if a prominent gadfly with a following declared that 2+2=22, they’d be hailed as a hero among their cult of followers, and the fact that every powerful and influential institution on the planet knowing otherwise would somehow be only further proof that it’s a conspiracy.
Sometimes that’s the place we’re at.