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These days, everything is Orwellian.
Did you know?
CCTV is Orwellian. Your smart toaster is Orwellian. The UK Government’s COVID Track & Trace project is Orwellian. Internet cookies are Orwellian. Social media is Orwellian.
Or so people say.
But what on earth do they mean by this?
Often used to signify vague allusions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwellian has become as moribund as other words like Kafkaesque and McCarthyist.
It’s a trash word that empowers imbeciles on the alt-right, so it’s time we stopped using it.
Orwellian must die.
Why People Invoke Orwell’s Name
Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced numerous words into public discourse. A strange irony, considering the novel is predominantly about the erasure of language and thought.
‘Thought crime’, ‘newspeak’, and ‘Big Brother’ are all used hyperbolically – often by people who have never read an Orwell novel in their life – to bemoan public or private overreach.
In death, his legacy has only grown.
In fact, the cult of personality surrounding Orwell has been allowed to reach a bizarre pitch of near-reverence.
Part of this is down to his incredibly strong, and vocal, political convictions.
As a political writer (see Politics and the English Language and Homage to Catalonia), Orwell was painfully honest.
He’d speak his truth, irrespective of what ‘his side’ thought. This alienated him from both his friends on the Left and enemies on the Right.
And yet, at the same time, this frank objectivity garnered Orwell a lot of respect. It’s primarily because of his honesty and rejection of dogma that both the political Left and Right tend to try and claim Orwell as their own.
This intellectual honesty is perhaps a sign of someone worth listening to.
Orwellian and the Legacy of Nineteen Eighty-Four
‘Orwellian,’ when used as an adjective by anxious, overzealous citizens comes from a collective public idea of Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It’s a fever dream of a novel that even the most stoic of readers undoubtedly find troubling. But it’s also gross parody (though not a very nice one) of the totalitarian state.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Oceania, free speech has ended. Its civilians are subject to round-the-clock surveillance. Futuristic technologies are used to subjugate the people.
Winston himself, our protagonist of the novel, actively creates and disseminates fake news. ‘Groupthink’ is encouraged, with the Thought Police out for anyone who deviates from the narrative. Ignorance and mistrust reign supreme.
The social and political anxieties of Nineteen Eighty-Four transcend the time it was published in. These days, those on both the political Left and Right use Orwellian as a paranoid invocation of Orwell and the fearful elements of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But this is either done spuriously, or unconsciously.
To be fair, some of the novels topics are prescient to our present day. Fake news is a real problem – with ‘troll farms’ a genuine business, designed to sow discord in Western nations. And in Hong Kong, its people are actively subject to some of these measures.
But mere similarities aren’t enough.
Because of this muddy, binary political battleground for Orwell’s legacy, we find ourselves listening to people – usually on Twitter – rewriting his history as either some sort of ‘anti-woke’ hero or, in other cases – some sort of sage prognosticator of a fascistic fantasy future cultivated by Western leftists.
It’s all very odd.
Nineteen Eighty-Four’s legacy is therefore somewhat sketchy. But this is largely thanks to lazy readings of Orwell’s work.
The novel is not a warning, nor Orwell’s prediction of a tainted future. Though a talented writer he may be, Orwell is not blessed with powers of precognition.
Sorry conspiracy theorists – life isn’t that interesting.
Orwell in the media - The weaponising of Airstrip One
The ghastly phrase ‘Orwellian’ has not helped either.
Has anyone who has ever uttered ‘Orwellian’ without a shred of irony ever actually read Nineteen Eighty-Four?
I highly doubt it.
It’s a word used largely by imbeciles who either haven’t read the book, or couldn’t read it.
A cursory glance of social media will show a range of far-right activists parroting of Orwell, despite the rather awkward fact that he was a committed socialist.
Therefore, the phrase Orwellian must die.
It has become overused to the point of cliché and risks falling into the realm of ‘McCarthyite’ – a political term that has since lost all sense of meaning.
Just Google Nineteen Eighty-Four or Orwellian and scroll down the news column and you’ll see what I mean. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.
Articles such as ‘Are we entering the Orwellian era of Nineteen Eighty-Four?’ framed by big data, ‘The deletion of womanhood,’ a very Daily-Mail article on how being a woman is now becoming thought crime.
Orwellian is the ‘they’ve cancelled Christmas’ [sic] of political discourse and criticism. Stop it.
Why Orwellian Must Die
The problem is this – the phrase Orwellian tarnishes Orwell’s legacy. It implies that he only wrote dystopian fiction, which is obviously false.
Orwell lived in a time where the threat of the Soviet Union was not being adequately challenged by his comrades on the Left. This is addressed in depth in Homage to Catalonia – one of the greatest pieces of war journalism ever written.
And then there’s The Road to Wigan Pier – travel writing with a highly socialist bent. It’s fantastic, if a little preachy in parts.
Meanwhile, Politics and the English Language remains essential reading for any writer. Any writer, journalist, or politician must read this at least once.
Essentially, there’s more to Orwell than Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is, without a double, a fantastic novel. Certainly one of my favourites.
But lazy reading, lazy political discourse, and lazy use of language limit the range of discussion surrounding Orwell.
Ironic, considering that this limiting of language & the range of thought is exactly what Orwell guards most against – something those decrying things as ‘Orwellian’ perhaps don’t realise.
Let’s stop using this awful word.
Orwellian must die.
Got any strong thoughts either way? Any additional Orwellian Bingo suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!