There are some words that must only be used delicately and infrequently, lest they lose their value. “Orwellian” is one such word. Whenever a Western government proposes a new policy that looks like the beginning of the road to totalitarianism, it is difficult to hear anything else. In Britain the Labour government’s proposals for ID cards are viewed with extreme suspicion (“they will know everything about us!”); in the US Obama’s policies on healthcare reform are met with much fearmongering and attendant fear; and in both cases Orwellian is the go-to word. But would Orwell be proud of this legacy?
George Orwell spent his life employing the political essay and novel in pitched battle against the forces of totalitarianism, in whatever form that might have taken, be it Stalin’s Communism or the British Empire. In 1984 he put forth a vision of totalitarianism so far beyond the realms of history and (perhaps) not so far beyond the realms of possibility that it stuck permanently to our collective imaginations. To us, the state of Oceania is the logical conclusion of totalitarianism, and a dystopia that as happily free citizens we must do our best to halt, and that dictators the world over do their best to install. Thus comes the word “Orwellian”, meaning any combination of the following: an all-seeing government that controls every aspect of our lives (even, as far as it can, our thoughts), a world in which everyone and everything exists for the state, a state which exists primarily to perpetuate itself, and a political class which frequently not only lies, but tells the exact opposite of the truth, with the populace having to believe it even to the point of absurdity.
The scariest and most pernicious of Orwell’s inventions was that of “doublethink”, which really is totalitarianism taken to its extreme. It is thus described in 1984:
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies…
If the state cannot control the minds of its people directly, it can at least force them to control their own minds, through an endlessly repeating process of “correcting” their thoughts. Doublethink is perhaps the most important feature of an Orwellian world, because without the freedom to think as you will, the last chance of rebellion is eradicated.
These are powerful ideas, which people would rather kill in infancy than suffer in perpetuity. However, a mild personality cult seems to have formed itself, centred on the prophetic figure of Orwell. Eric Blair, as he is otherwise known, is watching over his followers like Big Brother, imploring them to see Orwellianisms everywhere, even in places where they are far removed. Doublethink, or at least its milder strain, lazythink, can replicate itself in unsuspecting carriers much like the H1N1 virus—even though the society is officially vaccinated against totalitarianism. The seriousness of lazythink should not be underestimated: though it seems quite innocuous, it can lead to active involvement in unspeakable evil. How many of those who committed such terrible crimes in the name of National Socialism would not have done so had they really questioned the nature of what they were doing, and the ideology on which their actions rested? The Orwell cult probably won’t go down this route, but what their attitude leads to, quite ironically, is a stifling of debate—exactly the sort of thing that they would otherwise be quick to condemn as antithetical to a healthy, non-totalitarian society.
Not only does it stifle debate, but it chokes the natural breath of progress. A politician in an opposition party need not be so devilishly underhanded to call a government policy Orwellian, but with the use of that one word he has won a few easy points with great swathes of the voting public. Once the word is planted in the minds of people and combined with lazythink, we witness a downward spiral in which the accused government cannot do anything that’s not Orwellian, though they may have the best of intentions. It is unfortunate for Gordon Brown and his new iteration of New Labour that they quickly established themselves as serious and socialist. In that atmosphere, accusations of Ingsoc-style policy are even harder to banish. Obama has a similar (though milder) problem with the Fox News-watching American right. Although the current healthcare debate may not bring his presidency to ruin, it is likely that the accusations brought forth now will find a way to stay, even if the initial fervour ends up dissipating.
Alertness to sinister politics is a perfectly fine thing, of course. There will be times when the fears of encroaching totalitarianism are not unfounded. But being so quick to see the worst in a policy is just as counterproductive as seeing only the best. Let us not jump on the easy bandwagon with such important matters, nor try to look too clever. Rather, let us try to understand the situation in the cold light of day, with a sober and a present mind. Only if something is genuinely Orwellian should we ever use the word. In that way some of its rightful value will be restored, and Eric Blair might once again be proud to have it used in his honour.