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Arguing from Orwell: Everyone's Favorite Rhetorical Fallacy

Arguing from Orwell: Everyone's Favorite Rhetorical Fallacy

In 1949, George Orwell wrote to his agent Leonard Moore about Sidney Sheldon's potential theatrical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He voiced his fear of the book's meaning becoming "seriously deformed" by the Broadway rewrite, telling Moore, "I would be satisfied if I could see and approve the first draft, provided that it is agreed that the general tendency of the adaptation is not radically altered thereafter."  

Well, sorry to break the news, George — it's been altered every way under the sun. Orwell's most famous texts, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, have been used to describe just about every political ideology – communism, capitalism, socialism, anarchism, neoliberalism; even industries as a whole — journalists and the media, governments, Big Tech, content moderators on social media, academia. Whether making a case for or against Brexit, supporting COVID-19 restrictions or opposing them, or in recent events, being a Russian supporter or a Ukrainian sympathizer — people with completely different ideologies use Orwell's texts to say their opponents are authoritarian. We're in a strange situation where everyone and everything is Orwellian. 

But arguing from Orwell is a kind of rhetorical fallacy that prevents deeper engagement with what authoritarianism actually is. Usually, when people use the "Orwellian argument" to show their opponents as authoritarian, they place themselves on the anti-authoritarian or liberating side. Calling something "Orwellian" allows one to deride their opponent but fails to engage with the essence of an argument. Calling something Orwellian can be a kind of doublespeak itself. 

Orwell's Politics

Orwell was best known for his books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The former is an allegory of the 1917 Russian Revolution and  tells the story of a group of animals who revolt against fascist human owners to create a utopian society. The latter is a dystopian fiction that warns the readers about a totalitarian world where the ruling party can suppress people's thoughts and censor information, including altering history and controlling expression. 

George Orwell was originally Eric Blair, born to middle-class parents in Eastern India in 1903. After moving back to England, Orwell won a scholarship and graduated from the prestigious Eton College in 1917. Then as a first job, he served five years in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. During this time, Orwell became aware of the ills of imperialism and class war and began to loathe authority and class oppression. His strong anti-imperialist reflections are apparent in his first novel Burmese Days and subsequent essay, "Shooting an Elephant."

Orwell wrote that all his "serious work" was "against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."

In 1936, Orwell traveled to Spain with his wife to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War, joining the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (P.O.U.M.) to fight against the Nationalists, who were backed by Nazi Germany. Orwell called himself a "Tory Anarchist" until he witnessed the Soviet Union's communist totalitarianism during the war. His experience in Spain made him realize that Stalin's fascist regime was the very thing he was fighting and that he desired an egalitarian society. His stance was clear - he was pro-socialist, yet anti-Stalinist. In a letter to his friend Cyril Connolly in 1937, Orwell confessed, "I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before." Later in 1946, in the essay "Why I Write," Orwell admitted that all his "serious work" was "against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism."  

Orwell also faced censorship. Nineteen Eighty-Four was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988 and it was reported that tourists could not carry the book into the region. In addition, publishers initially rejected Animal Farm, out of fear it was "too controversial" and risky. At the time, the Soviet Union was the U.K.'s ally against Nazi Germany. In Orwell's proposed preface to Animal Farm, "The Freedom of Press," the author criticized the British media. He revealed that one publisher decided against printing when the Ministry of Information "strongly advised him against publishing" the book.

In response, Orwell wrote, "If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves."

Orwell was anti-fascist and warned people of propaganda. Speaking to USA Today, David Ulin, associate professor of English at the University of Southern California, pointed out that Orwell "was very wary of totalitarianism from the left as well as from the right."

But Orwell's politics was not easy to claim. He was anti-communism yet not pro-capitalism. Despite calling himself a socialist, he looked down on a certain kind of socialist. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote, "The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party ....Of course, as I have suggested already, it is not strictly fair to judge a movement by its adherents." In "George Orwell, Pickwickian Radical? An Ambivalent Case," John Rodden, a renowned Orwellian expert, argues that Orwell was a socialist but not a progressive, and some conservative elements could be seen in his life. The overall picture is murky. 

War is peace, disease is health

In 1984, Orwell writes: "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power."

When people argue from Orwell, what they're normally doing is making an argument about power — who gets to wield it, and whether they're doing so in a way that promotes justice and freedom. 

Dr. Ana María Sánchez-Arce, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University whose specialism is censorship, explains why Orwell's texts are widely popular. "Even if someone hasn't read his books, they would have seen some adaptations of his popular texts or be aware of the main concepts like Big Brother." She adds that since the texts don't attach the stories to a particular context, "many people worldwide can empathize with the story."

Since the story doesn't directly allude to those people, Animal Farm can stand for any ideology. Ironically, allegory is a good way to avoid censorship.

That makes the story an allegory, and allegorical stories are often open to varied interpretations. "Animal Farm is a satire of particular U.S.S.R. leaders. But since the story doesn't directly allude to those people, it can stand for any ideology." Ironically, Dr. Sánchez-Arce says, "allegory is a good way to avoid censorship." 

Both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. have long used Orwell's actual texts to employ propaganda tactics and make people believe in a shared enemy. In Orwell's original ending of Animal Farm, one can no longer tell the autocratic pigs from evil humans. However, in 1955, the C.I.A. altered the animated version of the book to show only the pigs as vicious. The United States Information Agency distributed the film around the globe to "combat communism." Similarly, the U.S.S.R. used Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as political propaganda to tell people that the U.S. employed surveillance and totalitarian tactics on its citizens. 

Sánchez-Arce points out that the partisan left and right use Orwell's references to "dehumanize one another" and justify conflict, armed or otherwise. Even though the Cold War is over, the West and Russia are once again using Orwell to show their opponent in an authoritarian light. In an article for the Conversation, philosophy professor Dr. Mark Satta argues that statements from Putin's speech use "Orwellian doublespeak," i.e., language set by the ruling class that distorts words to mask the truth. Nicholas Goldberg, the associate editor of LA Times, agrees. He writes that when Russia passed a law criminalizing the words "war" and "invasion" in Ukraine's context, it followed Oceania's blueprint in Nineteen Eighty-Four to limit people's thoughts by restricting language. 


Screenshot from a pro-Ukraine Twitter account

On the other hand, Russian politicians and pro-Russia journalists use Nineteen Eighty-Four to convince their citizens of the "common enemy." In a blogpost, Konstantin Kosachev, a Russian senator, states that the current "Orwellian" reality is where "alternative opinion causes some kind of social annihilation: a violent outburst of protest and anger, a desire to ostracize the very source of information." Kosachev accuses the U.S. and Europe of anti-Russian propaganda and lying to the world about Russian aggression against Ukraine. He declares that the Ukrainian war is staged, and the West makes "ordinary citizens" participate in "two minutes of hate" - a reference from Nineteen Eighty-Four, where citizens were primed with hate for Oceania's enemies. 

Screenshot from an anti-NATO Twitter account

Similarly, as vaccine misinformation flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic, the COVID conspiracy community drew several references from Nineteen Eighty-Four

Orwell warns about the dangers and perils of tyrannical control in Nineteen Eighty-Four. For him, totalitarianism includes a government that wields absolute power over its citizens. Big Brother, the titular ruler of Oceania, uses propaganda to control people's thoughts, memories, and history. Drawing parallels to the world of totalitarian Oceania, conspiracists believe that COVID-19 is a diabolical ploy run by the government to suppress alternative viewpoints, impose tyranny, and control the population. Comparisons were made between the government's control of imposing "draconian" lockdown and mask measures and Orwell's "dystopian future." 

Screenshot of a COVID conspiracy Telegram channel 

The term "COVID-1984" often pops up in anti-vax and anti-lockdown social media groups. VICE also reported a "fake track and trace" app with the same name. The "COVID-1984" app, which was circulated on Telegram by anti-lockdown activists, allowed users to gain venue entry without disclosing personal contact information.

Censorship and Authoritarianism

According to Dr. Sánchez-Arce, people quoting Orwell offer a partial view as they "pick a kernel of truth about him and then spin it." She says that picking the minor details of Orwell's writing "is a clever way of accusing the other side of acting in a totalitarian or at least self-serving way." 

The degree of censorship may vary, but both Russia and the West are guilty of it. While Russia has banned Instagram and Facebook under "extremism law," Canada and the EU have blocked Russian sponsored media, RT and Sputnik, to stop the "spread of disinformation." RT America also ceased operations and laid off all staff.

Dr. Sánchez-Arce explains varying degrees of censorship, "In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell talked about censorship of information, including rewriting newspapers, censoring and manipulating historical documents. But there was also soft censorship." She adds, "Soft censorship like social outrage at any ideas that differ from the accepted way of seeing the world or corporate censorship that bans news can impact ideological systems - preventing critical thinking, so citizens don't have any thoughts that differ from the party line." That kind of censorship is most akin to the "cancel culture" panic found among media pundits today. 

It's a tradeoff – you don't get unfettered free speech, but you do prevent the rapid spread of dangerous lies.

Removing misinformation from social media platforms – i.e., content moderation – is a kind of censorship too. A small number of bad actors can pollute and take over a space with toxic discourse if there's no moderation, which ruins it for everyone, as anyone who's used an online forum in the last 20 years can attest to. So to keep an online space pleasant and informative, the users have to agree to follow the rules – which is what all platforms make users agree to when they sign up. They're private spaces, which means they don't fall under "free speech" laws in English-speaking countries. That kind of censorship can prevent people from falling into extremist spaces, or from trusting medical misinformation with their lives. It's a tradeoff, as conspiracy researcher and journalist Mike Rothschild argues – you don't get unfettered free speech, but you do prevent the rapid spread of dangerous lies. 

And while the Government's Coronavirus Act 2020 can be concerning in its overreach, it is nowhere close to Orwell's definition of dystopian. The U.K. government faced severe criticism for delaying lockdowns and undermining the threat of COVID-19. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was consistently accused of delaying lockdown restrictions, or doing U-turns when mounting scientific evidence forced his hand. A combination of scientific and political pressures forced the government to announce public health and economic support measures. And the restrictions were not taken just for the sake of power: COVID-19 restrictions were supported by scientific experts; studies show that lockdown measures saved lives. 

But the entire process was visibly motivated by vigorous public debate. The majority supported some kind of restrictions, and now there are still discussions about working from home, masks in schools, and how to deal with new variants. All that being said, there still was criticism that the government used the lockdowns as a pretext, rather than just a public safety measure, to further their own goals – but even that was towards corporate privatization of the NHS rather than centralized control. (Though one could argue that corporate authoritarianism is just as bad, if not worse, than governmental authoritarianism.) 

Even now, as news breaks that the PM was fined for breaking lockdown restrictions, Johnson has been criticized through the lens of Animal Farm – an animal "more equal" than all the rest. 

Orwell is Doublespeak

When asked how Orwell is used to justify violence, Sanchez-Arce says, "The narrative is always the same - it dehumanizes the other side and goes back in history to censor and rewrite the past. By telling the citizens of Oceania that they "have always been at war with Eastasia," the ruling party uses cultural violence to make conflict acceptable." 

Using doublespeak, propaganda, or censorship to describe one's opponents carries the risk of flattening lots of entirely different phenomena into the same thing – and inadvertently accomplishing what doublespeak actually does: erase complex thoughts. 

Instead of quoting Orwell and trying to suit a political narrative, we might rather follow his advice -- "never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."

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