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On the misuse of Orwell

Jack Glynne-Jones is wary of 'doublespeak' in the political use of Orwell quotes.

The habit of thoughtlessly quoting or referencing George Orwell in political debate has become, like so many bad habits, so common that it is rarely questioned. Using his name as an adjective is an unrepented cliché, and pulling lines from his work is often the first resort of someone short of real-life evidence to back their claims. Partisans on both left and right use him in a similar way to that in which they use the coronavirus; carefully selecting strands of information to fit their political prejudices and presenting these as a fair representation of the whole picture. Ridiculous claims such as ‘the coronavirus threatens to upend the conservative worldview’, and on the opposite side, ‘Coronavirus Vindicates Capitalism’, are a nice demonstration of the kind of thinking often used when writers quote Orwell; ‘How Nineteen Eighty-Four warned us about Brexit’ and ‘George Orwell would have been a Brexiteer’. One added benefit to using Orwell is that it suggests that you have read him, presenting yourself as an encyclopedia of literature with quotations at your immediate command. 

An irony of his overuse, but perhaps one cause of his misuse, is that Orwell is a writer difficult for any political group to ‘claim’ as their own. He was clearly a man of the left: ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly…. for democratic socialism’. However, he was no member of the British mainstream or ‘official’ left. He was highly suspicious of the communist elements, who displayed sympathy to the Soviet regime, yet he also said ‘what socialists nearly all schools believe is ….true happiness of man lies in a society of pure communism’. A socialist, he nevertheless advises : ‘I think we ought to guard against assuming that as a system to live under, [socialism] will be greatly preferable to democratic capitalism’, and he criticized scathingly the ‘intelligentsia’ who would ‘feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save The King’ than of stealing from a poor box’. In passages such as these he offers ample material for those on the right, who have adopted Orwell to their causes as much as, if not more than in recent years, the various factions of the left have done. Yet the above quotes illustrate the complexity and subtlety of his beliefs, not to mention the political shifts he underwent throughout his life; up until his experiences in Catalonia, he described himself as a ‘tory anarchist’.

Quoting someone is of course not the same as claiming political ownership of them, nor does it require that you both agree on everything. But you would think that many on the right would be more hesitant to idolise, and use so many quotes from, a man who said such things as: ‘Patriotism….is actually the opposite of conservatism’ and ‘It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free’. Furthermore, he is often used to argue against increased state ownership and control, yet he supported socialism which, in his words, means that ‘the State, representing everyone, owns everything, and everyone is a state employee’. As for the buzz-word ‘orwellian’, I think it is a shame to use his name as a term for totalitarianism and oppression, like the naming of biological diseases after their discoverers. Orwell would likely resent the way his name is used to paint the government’s coronavirus lockdown measures as despotic or ‘1984’-like; Orwell thought that ‘we cannot win the war (WW2) without introducing socialism’, and although we are not at war, this comment suggests that he would not object to increased state power in times of crisis. Conversely, similar misuses come from those on the left, with lines such as: ‘Brexit has turned our government into an Orwellian ministry of Truth’, which come from journalists who seem to think it appropriate to use the term ‘Orwellian’ for anything political that one considers ‘bad’. 

Lines from his work are not the findings from some kind of rigorous scientific experiment, yet people use them to add a thin veneer of sophistication or truth to weak arguments. The way they are used often implies that because he said it, it must be true, yet of course, he was fallible like all of us; he could at times drift into vagueness, and display errors in foresight, highlighted by his false predictions of an oncoming ‘English Revolution’, or his claim in 1942 that Churchill did not have many months of power left. Quoting Orwell, or particularly the set of terms associated with him, is too easy a tool to use when attempting to add weight to one’s statements, and instead using more precise examples from real life as evidence, which are more directly related to the topic at hand, would likely add to the quality of debate. Orwell himself said: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print’, and ‘Never use…. a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent’. 

Referencing writers can be a great way to illustrate a point more succinctly than one might otherwise be able to, or the writer may have had experiences which gave them insight worth mentioning; Orwell is the perfect example of this, in that his experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma and as a fighter in the Spanish civil war provided him with a still unmatched understanding of the unholy trinity of the early 20th century; imperialism, fascism and totalitarianism. However, this does not mean that one should flippantly reference him on any 21st century topic of choice to suit one’s political viewpoints, in a way which wrenches the quotes from their original context and in doing so twists them into an altogether different meaning. 

I certainly do not hope that Orwell will be discussed or referred to less, but that he is used not lazily, without regard to his either views and experiencesm nor to support ideas which he would have despised. The terms associated with him, such as ‘1984 or ‘Big Brother’, can be helpful when used in an honest manner, and as he wrote so vividly it is understandable that they have become (as Christopher Hitchens put it): ‘virtual hieroglyphics which almost immediately summon a universe of images and associations.’ However, these mental packets should not stand in the way of critical thought about the delicate and complex issues facing us today, which require a sceptical but reasonable approach, nor should his works be used dishonestly in debate between left and right. I will finish with Orwell, if I may:

‘This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.’ 

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