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”.


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