Understanding Orwell: His teachings in a time of extremes

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George Orwell in the last years of his life (Image via Jon Winokur / @AdviceToWriters)

The renewed embrace of George Orwell by the media and politicians reveals a deep misunderstanding of the man, writes Jake Watson.

GEORGE ORWELL'S renaissance in the media and public discourse is always bittersweet.

On one hand, the discussion of great political and literary minds is surely beneficial; on the other, the mention of Orwell can only mean that something he warned us about is happening. As a writer who came to prominence during a time of extremes – as ours are becoming – his words are more worth reading than ever.

His relevance lately has been peaking, with lies flowing from the White House daily, and the line between true and false concealed. The discussion – in comment sections across the web, and publications like Fox News and Breitbart – reveals a deep misunderstanding of the man, but also a lack of appreciation for the scope of his lessons.

Focus goes usually to the clearer points of his most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly his staunch opposition to controlled, deceptive language. This has been spurred on lately by the term "alternative facts" and the more egregious examples of utterly disproved voter fraud and travel bans that aren’t bans.

In his words:

‘Sanity was statistical. It was merely a question of learning to think as they thought.’


‘The very concept of objective truth is fading out in the world… lies will pass into history.’

What’s important to remember is that this, like all Orwell believed, is fundamentally non-partisan.

Dishonesty is something to be resisted coming from the left, right or centre; political language, he says:

‘Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

Many people rightly attack Donald Trump for his lies, while being lenient of those from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. This occurs just as often in reverse. But Orwell’s statements are not moldable to ideology — they are unabashedly unbiased principles. However, many use them only in one direction, particularly when using Orwell to aid their anti-political correctness beliefs. Though many of the people who rally against politically correct speech are undoubtedly bigots, unfashionable criticism of ideas we’ve every right to critique is too often unfairly silenced.

As Orwell wrote:

‘At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question…a genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.’

Written as a preface to Animal Farm in response to the pre-WWII hypocrisy of the British press and intelligentsia, who criticised Churchill’s government while leaving the Soviets untouched ('serious criticism of the Soviet regime … is next door to unprintable'), these words could apply today, particularly to discussion on Islam. It currently has a special place as the most controversial and most protected religion in Australia. While Christianity, an astoundingly similar faith, can be openly derided and mocked, if such treatment occurs to Islam it is Islamophobia and highly unfashionable. This means that measured discussion of the religion often gets lumped in with the genuine xenophobia — of which there is plenty-against Muslims themselves. It seems likely Orwell would have disagreed, both with the hatred for the almost entirely peaceful followers of the faith and those who shut down criticism of the faith itself.

His talent for nuance and equivocation are seen not just in his writing but in his life. An avowed socialist, he was largely excommunicated from Britain’s literary class at the time for not supporting Stalin, who was seen as the strongest opponent of fascism. But Orwell – who literally fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War – knew that Stalin was the same beast as Hitler: totalitarians both, but in different outfits. He knew their downfalls were not each other, but something more difficult, which was to fix the causes of their ascendancies.

To him, this meant middle-class unemployment, though he did not believe this was merely a matter of jobs; it was that:

‘By about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts, and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in.’

Comparisons of Trump to these maniacal despots are gross exaggerations, but Orwell’s analysis seems to fit closely with what many have blamed for his election.

Again near the mark is his diagnosis of the surge of support for Stalin by Orwell’s peers:

‘It was simply something to believe in … All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Father, king, leader, hero, saviour-all in one word, Stalin.’

You could, reasonably, replace the last word of that quote (a small excerpt from his 1940 essay 'Inside the Whale') with the name of any populist leader currently on the rise worldwide. The renaissance of nationalism, driving and driven by these leaders, is 'the product of fear and the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization', says Orwell. So the aim, if it is accepted that our times bear any resemblance to his, is to fill the gaps and give people what Orwell – and Stalin, and Hitler – knew they need: something to believe in. Something to support, not oppose.

How to do this is a much harder question, as is how to fix the problems of today, the problems of ever more-opposing factions, of the increasingly indiscernible line between true and false, of the seemingly universal lack of ability to equivocate and so, once more, I request the help of the vastly more eloquent Orwell:

‘A truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist … The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, or evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified.’

George Orwell cannot fix these things for us, but what he stood for and exemplified can. Truth over lies; principles over politics; lonely right over popular wrong.

Perhaps this is why we have never let Orwell leave — because we never stopped needing him.

You can follow Jake Watson on Twitter @watsonj12.

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