Orwell’s problem with Orwell
Or, “ On why ‘Orwellian’ isn’t a thing, being a victim of your success, and the danger of lazy showing off.”
George Orwell is inescapable. The man and his work, justifiably, are an indisputable fact of British life. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four are on the GCSE and A-Level curriculums respectively, and the terminology of Airstrip One is constantly thrown back and forth by both sides of the political spectrum. Both previously mentioned novels regularly appear on Britain’s most popular novels lists while his work is so well-loved, respected and recognised as intelligent it also appears in the list of novels Brits lie about having read.
As proof of his influence on the world, we have the eponymous adjective “Orwellian”. But not only does that not mean anything anymore, ole’ Orwell — Orwell’s nickname during the Spanish Civil War — would have refuted it.
“We don’t say “Babe: Pig in The City is Orwellian because there is a talking pig in it.”
We might point to the fact both the political Left and Right use it to describe the behaviour of the other as evidence that one or both sides don’t understand what they are saying. If they are opposing forces and ideologies, they can’t both be right after all. But let’s look at what Orwellian does and doesn’t mean before we look at why everyone is wrong all the time.
It doesn’t mean “ to be like the works of Orwell”. We don’t say “Babe: Pig in The City is Orwellian because there is a talking pig in it” or at least we don’t say it and mean it unless we are taking the piss. It would be silly to say not everything Orwell wrote was Orwellian too. We might say some of his work is not like his other work, for example, Nineteen Eight-Four and Animal Farm aren’t like his other novels, but we know we wouldn’t strip either of being described as Orwellian. And make no mistake they are different in plenty of ways, and different further in comparison to his work as an essayist.
“…we have to admit Orwellian is a word used to reflect your own politics.”
We might say Orwellian refers to his style, not his content. Which would be the fairest meaning of the word but let’s face it, unless you’re reading literary criticism rather than doom-scrolling through Twitter with tears in your eyes and hate in your hearts during the dead of the night, that’s not the context in which word is used. When we see someone use Orwellian, what they are trying to say is “I think this thing is like some of the things at are in or lead up the things in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I have definitely read.”
But here’s the thing. There are lots of ideas in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When using the term Orwellian, we’re usually just picking out the parts we don’t like and applying them to something we don’t want to see in the real world. Right now, you’re probably thinking I’ve wasted five paragraphs trying to define something obvious. But, if that’s true, we have to admit Orwellian is a word used to reflect your own politics.
“No one ever says something like ‘I will defend the Prime Minister with Orwellian fervour.’ Only, ‘Your defence for the Prime Minister is Orwellian.’ “
Each terrible aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is part of a collection, and we either think all of these things and anything that might lead to them, are bad all the time — war is always Orwellian, state-controlled production is always Orwellian, state-sponsored torture is always Orwellian, fake news is always Orwellian, idolising leaders and hating the enemy is always Orwellian, propaganda is always Orwellian — or, much more likely, we think some of these things are bad all the time and some are bad when those with different politics do them.
“…it is a euphemism for “I don’t like this thing.”
No one ever says something like “I will defend the Prime Minister with Orwellian fervour.” Only, “Your defence for the Prime Minister is Orwellian.”
This isn’t to hold us all equally accountable and damned yet. But it is to say that Orwellian isn’t a descriptive word — particularly when all the examples above and the one I didn’t list have perfectly adequate adjectives — it is a euphemism for “I don’t like this thing.”
Now about euphemisms, Orwell was deeply suspicious of them. His essay Politics and The English Language starts as a critique of style but ends by looking at laziness with language is paramount to laziness with political scrutiny and vigilance. In it, he writes;
“Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments that are too brutal to face, and which do not square with the professed aim of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” [Emphasis mine].
As we’ve seen, Orwellian is vague, euphemistic and, because of its universal connections of wickedness — strengthened by the number of events, policies and practices which fit the definition — it is avoided when analysing our own politics… probably because it would be justifiable but “too brutal to face”.
“…he thought Fascism was wicked, he took it for granted and moved to Spain so he could shoot and kill Fascists so they would be dead.”
If, like Orwell, and indeed myself, you count yourself among the Left you might be inclined to argue Orwell was a Leftist and was worried about the Fascist Right, so we know Orwellian is a condemnation of those politics and therefore we are free from this mistake, well, there is good and bad news.
The good news is that Orwell was most certainly Left-wing. Despite his name endlessly attached to debate on freedom of speech or “thought police” being rolled out by anyone confusing consequences and criticism for censorship, he also didn’t believe in the market place of ideas as a perfect logic mechanism for politics. He didn’t write why he thought Fascism was wicked, he took it for granted and moved to Spain so he could shoot and kill Fascists so they would be dead.
“But, he also recognised that the Left contributes to the failure of political discourse as much as the Right.”
No twat with a trestle table and a “debate me” sign was going convince Orwell otherwise, though I’d be very surprised if they didn’t invoke Orwell’s name in defence of their ridiculous challenge.
But, he also recognised that the Left contributes to the failure of political discourse as much as the Right. In the same essay, he writes something we see an argument spouted by the usually bald and bespectacled but always contemptible, right-wing punditry.
“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings
“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
Orwell then adds a list of political terms used by both Left and Right to which we can now add Orwellian. While we might not use it cynically, were not using it honestly or fairly either.
There is a certain irony to Orwell warning us about the manipulation, cowardice, and laziness in our political writing and his name ultimately becoming part of that terrible tradition. It’s Kafkaesque. And the Right is correct in using Orwellian as a term in so far as it means “something not desirable from Nineteen Eighty-Four.” That novel is a criticism of far-left Stalinism.
“Orwell wrote thousands of pages without ever resorting to something as lazy and toothless as Orwellian.”
But that is the correctness of ignorance which tries to conscript Orwell to their cause. And they could do with an Orwell figure on the Right. Yes there right-wing novels, but none of the same level of fame as Orwell’s book, by a right-wing author, criticising the far-right. The Right hasn’t created anything nearly as popular and self-critical as Orwell. It lacks the introspection and has been far too focused on getting the job of winning at any cost, in doing so opening the door to any bloated, shallow, and floppy-haired terrors who tells them they can deliver the goods. And they are the worse for it.
Orwell was a victim of his success. It’s exactly because he is inseparable from British discourse that Left and Right turn to him as a weapon in their claims. But his political ideas are easily (or conveniently) ignored by both sides to suit their needs as and when they like. Orwellian is a term that means different things to different people, the using of which demonstrates an apparent love for a text we Brits lie about reading. And, when we do read it, we struggle with the message of the book against the beliefs of the author. But does that mean we should give up Orwell altogether?
No. Any Intelligent political debate comes from honesty about ourselves and what we believe, not recycled words that sound clever. We need to say what we mean rather than resort to euphemism. It is achievable; Orwell wrote thousands of pages without ever resorting to something as lazy and toothless as Orwellian. To that end, and indeed, the end…
“…one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy… Political language — and with variations from this is true from all political parties, from Conservative to Anarchist — is design to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”