Stop referring to Orwell if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

I appeal to my fellow Humanities teachers to put a stop to the misuse of the term, “Orwellian”. I saw a tweet which denounced pro-choice lobbyists as “Orwellian” because of their use of the term “Pro-chice” to mean – “the murder of thousands of innocents”. I tried to convince this tweep that really, “pro-life” was a term that was more misleading than “pro-choice”, as “pro-life” really means “against-abortion-in-any-circumstance”, whereas “pro-choice” means “in-favour-of a-woman’s-right-to-choose“. In other words, “pro-life” is a nuanced term – to the point of being euphemistic, whereas “pro-choice” means exactly what it purports to mean.

I get it. The guy I was trading tweets with believes that abortion is a form of mass murder. Fair enough, but pro-choice people don’t see it that way. They don’t share the same unprovable religious view, so they are being true to their meaning. This is not Orwellian.

In another debate, the left leaning New Democratic Party was denounced as “Orwellian” because of its social policies which the tweep called “social engineering”. I suppose he’s right in a sense. Like the socialist Soviet government that Orwell alluded to in Animal Farm, the NDP has a plan, and I suppose you could call that plan “social engineering” in the sense that they would create policy that would affect society, but that’s what all governments do, whether left wing or right wing. Clearly, it is a stretch to call the NDP Orwellian in this sense.

It’s worth noting that in Animal Farm, Orwell’s allegorical novel about the Bolshevik revolution, the idea of animalism (socialism) is not outright eschewed. In fact, at first, under the leadership of the pig named Snowball (Trotsky), the system works well. The problems begin when the farm’s leadership is usurped by Snowball’s opportunistic partner, Napoleon (Stalin), who is greedy and exploitive, and who drives Snowball into exile and drives the farm to ruin.

But I digress. My beef is with the misuse of the term “Orwellian”. Orwell’s society in 1984, is is what I  typically imagine whenever I hear the term. If a vision is Orwellian, it’s dystopian. Orwell’s dystopian governments were willing to suppress and control their citizens through fear mongering, through the creation of a public enemy, through the revision of history, and through the recruitment of a police force that would brutalize dissidents. Governments in Orwell’s vision would manipulate citizens’ thoughts through constant, ongoing advertisement over the media (“Big Brother is watching you”). Government would identify any dissidents by spying on its own people – monitoring them using whatever technology was available, and it would exterminate anyone who committed “thought crimes” against the state.

In order to prevent dissension, the government  would also control the communications media, heavily editorializing and heavily revising news. It would pervert language by misapplying humanistic terms to its own nefarious programs. For example in 1984, the government’s Ministry of Love is actually the ministry that exterminates dissidents. Language is simplified and nuanced into “Newspeak”, whose simplicity ensures that nothing other than simple thoughts are possible, and which cloaks state mandated human rights violations in euphemistic terms.

For a conservative to accuse a socialist of applying Orwellian techniques in political discourse, is worse than the pot calling the kettle black, when ever since McCarthyism the governments that have been most involved in Orwellian deception and manipulation have been conservative governments.

Consider the government of Stephen Harper in Canada. This government cuts funding to social programs and scientific initiatives, suppresses voting, secretly pays the debts of its supporters who are on the take (then dances around the issue, never directly answering questions in parliament), manipulates the public through advertising, listens in on citizens’ private phone conversations, constantly uses words like “Islamicism”, and “Radicalized” to keep the eyes of the public focused on Muslim terrorists as our common enemy (even if the actual perpetrators of attempted mass murder are White non-Muslims), and the list goes on.  This behaviour is certainly Orwellian.

So once again, my humanities colleagues, I urge you to throw the book at these people who misapply “Orwellian”. Perhaps the book you throw first should be Animal Farm, followed by  a nice hard-covered copy of 1984. And conservatives: stop using “Orwellian” to mean “something I don’t like”.

Their Poverty, Their Race

Race and poverty are the two edges of the capitalist sword. Poverty is far over-represented by people of colour. It follows that the problems that are born of poverty: homelessness, education struggles, crime, are also over-represented by people of colour. Because the problems are correlated to colour, it is easy for us Whites to look at the issue from afar and imagine that the cause of all these problems somehow is caused by race. The connection may not be definitively stated (at least not publicly), it is subconsciously accepted.

“If those people could only lift themselves up by their bootstraps like I did, or like my parents did,” is the the common sentiment. And “Why should I pay more taxes to support a social safety net when these people simply refuse to help themselves?”

On a more global scale, we can easily extend this thinking to our “enemies”. We can create labels like “terrorist” and “jihadist” and “Islamicist” and “radicalized” to distract ourselves from the real issues that has made us an enemy of other people. By doing this, we can ignore the reasons for their anger. Having successfully labelled the enemy, we see no issue other than the fact that those people are “just that way”. We don’t actually know them, so it is convenient for us to believe that we have done nothing wrong. We are good people, right. Hell, we even contribute to charity. What more do they want from us?

We privileged people seem to take comfort in this. It’s them. It’s their inherent flaws that make them the way they are, and it’s my good character that propels me to success. I can sleep at night in my little suburban fortress, lulled by the delusion that I deserve what I have, unlike that the seething mass of poor people that far outnumbers me, that has been exploited, often brutally so that I may have what I have. To support my delusion, I have a well-armed law enforcement agency and a weighty justice system on my side protecting my segregation from them. And it’s just a fact. I don’t wander into “certain neighbourhoods”.

We tut-tut about the Warsaw ghetto – how the Nazis rounded up thousands of Jews, interned them in a small sector of the city and stripped them of all rights and dignity, while we ignore our own ghettos. And we keep lowering funding to any public sector agency that can offer any real hope for equity: the most effective being public education.

Capitalism has a potential for much good

PS. As I re-read this. I realize that what I am talking about is not capitalism in its pure form, but social democracy that uses the market to drive its economy. Unfortunately, a more insidious, pure form of capitalism has convinced people of an untethered market agenda, and bought off politicians. The word “market” has replaced capitalist in this edit.

A controlled market model has much potential for good, but it needs to be re-imagined by leaders who understand the social implications of profitability, and who care to make their community (province, country?) a better place. The current situation in North America suggests that most leaders and investors either don’t understand, or don’t care.

If we could imagine the wealth of a successful corporation being completely redistributed among the workers, we could imagine a world where people’s well-being truly would be put first, where daycare would be completely subsidized, and where wages would be such that most people would have an improved standard of living.

Such imaginings are a bit of Pollyanna, no doubt. Profits lead to investment. Without a profit incentive, who would risk investing in new initiatives, many of which fail? But North America is a world where huge corporations are making huge profits, and not redistributing them at all. In fact, they are doing the opposite. They are constantly looking for efficiencies, which translate into wage cuts, poorer working conditions (including lower safety standards), and outsourcing, while CEOs and board chairs make unconscionably high wages.

The current scenario begs the question, “How much profit is enough?”

Most economists these days recognize an erosion of the middle class and an increase in the wage gap between rich and poor. One example can be seen in my school district where the district, forced because of  funding shortfalls to look for efficiencies, is seeking to reduce benefits for part time employees (read “mothers”), in order to balance budgets. At the same time, student to teacher ratios are skyrocketing, meaning that teachers have bigger workloads and students have less access to teacher help. The only way to remedy this situation is to increase the tax burden on those who can afford it, i.e. take a chunk out of profits.

This type of scenario is not unique to the public sector. Another far more disturbing trend can be seen in the private sector, where because of the time and financial constraints imposed by “efficiencies”, safety standards can be overlooked. In the past year, there have been some serious accidents in North America: saw mill explosions due to fine flammable particulate not being properly removed from the air, a terrible train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, and a horrible loss of 19 young firefighters in Arizona. In British Columbia, the safety standards for forest firefighters, rather than being studied at the ground level and applied as necessary, have been imported from other industries which don’t have the same safety issues that arise in a burning forest. No amount of profit is worth the preventable death or injury of one person.

A particularly egregious example of a corporation’s attempt to defray the cost of safety and worker compensation is American Airlines’ outsourcing of aircraft mechanics to third world workers – thereby offloading danger onto people desperate for work, and killing jobs in the corporation’s own country.

At a far less severe degree of importance, but important just the same, is the issue of worker dignity. There seems to be a growing disconnect between the goals of the labourer and the goals of the manager. A small example of this can be seen in school districts that use a database called Enhanced Student Information System (ESIS). This is a very powerful tool for  government ministries. It allows schools to collect and archive virtually any kind of student information imaginable in one database – everything from attendance to achievement to ethnicity. It can even generate school timetables. It’s easy to see how ESIS could have value for education managers. The problem with ESIS is that at the input stage (used by teachers, school secretaries and school administrators), it is clunky, unintuitive and time consuming, disrupting the flow of school administration and lessons. There exist many similar software systems that are designed with the daily user in mind, but for the sheer magnitude of the database,(and likely security interests), ESIS is the program of choice. This kind of disconnect is frustrating for users, who begin to ask of the managers, “Don’t they understand what we do?” After all, the goal of education is learning, and not data collection. There are countless examples of this disconnect that is born of efficiency culture.

The result is to lower morale in the workplace. But morale is not something that is easy to commodify into dollars and cents. At the shareholder level, worker morale doesn’t seem like something worth losing profits over.

At the heart of the matter is the question, “What are we trying to achieve as a community?”. If profiteers truly care about their country, and not just themselves, they will gladly accept lower profits, and pay higher taxes in order to facilitate a true trickle-down economy. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which people would be convinced of such a radical idea. It is inherently socialistic, and it assumes the best motives of the work force AND of the profiteers.

Greed gets in the way, of course. For this reason, the solution must be found in policy – social policy that aims to benefit the people and society as a whole, and not just the profiteers. It’s time for political leaders to reconnect to their mandate of government for the people.