Orwell and the Cancellation of Culture

George Orwell’s appalling vision of the future in 1984 makes clear that totalitarian rule relies heavily on official censorship. Big Brother watches for deviations from Ingsoc ideology and for disloyalty to the Party. While at bottom, thoughtcrimes are political crimes in the novel, the exercise of political thought control inevitably entails the loss of other freedoms apart from political liberty. 

Critics of dystopian literature have noted how such works are often less prophecy than they are commentary on deplorable contemporary tendencies. Along these lines, Orwell famously stated that the frightening world he created in 1984 would not “necessarily arrive” but that “totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw those ideas out to their logical consequences.” 

To help eliminate alternative points of view and troublesome shades of meaning, the Party perpetually reshapes the language into Newspeak, removing words and phrases from the lexicon in order “to narrow the range of thought.” So, in a novel suffused not only with a sense of political terror but with a deep sense of loss, the reader is compelled to think about all the costs of censorship and suppression and the ways in which non-political aspects of life are seized and made political by those who seek power. 

Orwell’s championing of free expression, then, extends beyond the political. He argues on behalf of artistic honesty and free speech as inseparable from individual integrity. The establishment of taboo subjects and forbidden forms of expression are demoralizing to all and deforming for writers. Verbal forbidden zones attenuate the culture. This truth is currently being abandoned by many who should be at the forefront of declaring that freedom of expression is the freedom of thought, and that freedom of thought is the ultimate measure of human freedom. Orwell knew better.

“The Prevention of Literature”

In 1946, the same year that he published his most famous essay, the frequently anthologized “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell published another essay entitled “The Prevention of Literature.” Both essays were written while Orwell was in the state of fertile planning implied in Aristotle’s use of the term heuresis, or invention: he was mulling over plans for 1984. Both essays reveal the anxious interest in the political uses and abuses of language that would find their way into that novel, and both show Orwell’s concern with the moral dimensions of language.

Although they tread the same ground broadly speaking, the essays nevertheless differ significantly in their particular emphases. It is the lesser-known, less-discussed “Prevention” that applies most closely and consistently to our cultural state of affairs in 2020. Line after line calls up contemporary parallels. The essay illustrates that it is best to think of Orwell not merely as fighting a brave defense of free political speech, but as advocating positively for free expression in all realms.

“Prevention” warns against the “practical enemies” of free speech, identified as “monopoly and bureaucracy,” but more trenchantly it also highlights Orwell’s antipathy towards the thought leaders who would front the post-war cultural scene. Orwell recognized that the mid-century English intelligentsia and arts world was dominated by an embittered left that was intellectually inconsistent, morally obtuse, and relentlessly negative. Speaking of the left-wing “weekly and monthly papers” of his day, Orwell asserted in “The Lion and the Unicorn” that “there is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.”  

What they might do if given power became clear to Orwell in the 1944 proceedings of the P.E.N. Club, which called a meeting whose professed purpose was to celebrate the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, a pamphlet expressly written to extol freedom of the press and a touchstone document in the history of free speech. This symposium provoked Orwell into writing “Prevention.” He listened to the P.E.N. speeches, waiting in vain for anything approaching a full-throated defense of unfettered speech.  He did hear a defense of the Soviet purges. He did not hear a single speaker quote from Milton’s work. “In its net effect,” he concludes, “the meeting was a demonstration in favor of censorship.” 

Plus ça change. Orwell’s analysis of the P.E.N. attendees’ evasions and special pleading predict almost perfectly the response to the Salman Rushdie fatwa, which itself provided a preview of the burgeoning hostility to free expression current amongst today’s woke thought leaders. One would think that fellow writers and progressive intellectuals would have rushed unanimously to defend their fellow artist and to extol the freedom of imagination upon which their livelihoods and their personal integrity depended. But this was far from the case.

Some few mounted a proper defense, but a surprisingly large number of mealy-mouthed, quarter-hearted, yes-but statements found their way into print and onto the airwaves. We heard that Rushdie should have known better; perhaps he even got what was coming to him. Prior to the Rushdie fatwa, the very people making these arguments would surely have claimed with pride never to have stooped to victim-blaming. Nor would they have hesitated for a moment to thumb their noses at Christian taboos in the name of creative transgression, never with the least fear for their lives. Some taboos, however, were suddenly found to be more equal than others.

Most of those committed to silencing others belong to a generation taught to be uniquely vigilant against bullying . . . and yet the tactics used by activists to silence opposing views come straight from the bully playbook.

“If it means anything at all,” Orwell avers, freedom of expression “means the freedom to criticize and oppose.” This is precisely what today’s purveyors of cancel culture cannot or will not recognize. One repeatedly reads nakedly self-contradictory statements issued by activists (including, sadly, college faculty and students) who state that, yes, of course they support freedom of speech, while in the same breath justifying their latest (often successful) effort to deplatform, disinvite, or disrupt.

Free speech for me but not for thee has lately found its way into the newsroom, where a younger generation of reporters seeks to create a culture of prior restraint by demanding the suppression of stories and alternative viewpoints (invariably described as harmful) even on the editorial pages. Crossing them can cost one one’s job. There is something woefully lacking in the imagination of these professionals and also in their educations. How is it not evident to them that the powerless have always stood the most to gain from free speech?

The theme of the independent writer daring to ignore the party line is highlighted early in “The Prevention of Literature.” Orwell calls up the lyrics of the Victorian-era Revivalist hymn:

Dare to be a Daniel; 
Dare to stand alone; 
Dare to have a purpose firm; 
Dare to make it known.

“To bring this hymn up to date,” Orwell observes with disgust, “one would have to add a ‘don’t’ at the beginning of each line.”

Unfortunately, adding “don’t” would be sound advice in 2020 for anyone who is required to go along to get along: writers and artists who risk the accusation of cultural appropriation if they step out of the identity lanes narrowly defined for them by progressive cultural watchdogs; employees who run afoul of the company line, not in regard to the company’s products or services, but on selected issues relating to gender identity or affirmative action; university students and faculty who have questions about the de facto party line laid down by their institutions about, say, Black Lives Matter or the exaggerated sex panic “data” used to justify Title IX overreach. Voicing questions about such matters, let alone making objections, can spell professional death.

Art and Appropriation

The direct silencing of opposing thoughts remains easy to detect. Shout-downs, disruptions, calls for muscle, deplatforming, and the rescinding of speaking invitations—all these have become commonplace events recorded in the news, as left-wing activists find ways to suppress alternate points of view. More insidious is the charge of cultural appropriation, a concept that now appears to be an inevitable outcome of multiculturalism as it has been conceived by progressives. Writers and artists are forbidden to engage with topics, themes, styles, or attitudes associated with cultural groups to which they do not belong. It is especially important, the thinking goes, that writers from majority or power-holding cultures steer clear of borrowing from minority or oppressed cultures.

One understands the desire for respect and a fair chance to represent one’s own culture, but cultural practices are not zero-sum entities. They cannot be stolen or exhausted. The real goal of cultural appropriation charges seems to be to induce a permanent cultural cringe, to create a version of cultural crimestop, the Party-induced state of mind in 1984. While some authors have fought back openly (Lionel Shriver is one such Daniel) and some artists don’t seem to pay attention to progressive fads (there are still musicians of various races who openly and happily talk about music’s inevitable borrowing and blending), too many institutions and too many individuals are on board with those who cry cultural appropriation.

It is not unusual to see museums parade their guilty feelings in the guise of admonishments against cultural appropriation. Thus do the benign categories of syncretism, exchange, and cultural hybridization get repackaged as theft. Publishers employ bias and sensitivity review boards, which sift authors’ works with an increasingly fine mesh to turn up hidden offenses. The world of Young Adult publishing is a particular hotspot for high-enforcement identity politics. Narrow definitions of identity have been strictly applied to Young Adult authors, who, upon pain of death by social media, are required exclusively to create characters and stick with themes that conform to their own narrowly defined identity.

Orwell articulated the dangers in self-censorship learned through cultural enforcement. “Even a single taboo,” he writes, “can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind.” And: “Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy . . . good writing stops.” It has been observed that those who look to make charges of cultural appropriation often chase away allies. To be sure, this is a just criticism, but if we take Orwell seriously, we realize that the pernicious effects of this concept run even more deeply: “The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes.”

Orwell notes the schizophrenic qualities that attach to obeisance to orthodoxy. In our present age, most of those committed to silencing others belong to a generation taught to be uniquely vigilant against bullying. Schools and the popular culture alike could seem obsessed with fighting against it, and yet the tactics used by activists to silence opposing views come straight from the bully playbook. Likewise with shame, an emotion that progressives would ordinarily declare harmful and retrograde—Down with shame!—Until it is time to whip up a Social Justice Twitter mob to punish someone who has transgressed against the latest progressive orthodoxy. Then it is eternal shame with redemption foreclosed.

We do not live in a totalitarian society, or anything approaching one. Nonetheless, the impulses to power—whether they be purposely disguised or unself-conscious—that impel the heedless Social Justice mindset do present a danger. Habits of mind are more important than the law in determining the lay of the cultural land. The practices now rising towards ascendancy in our most important institutions are already creating a culture of prior restraint. “The Prevention of Literature” analyzes the mind of the ideologue in thrall to orthodoxies that brook no questioning. That makes it an essay for our times.

*Editor’s note: This essay has been updated to correct the term used by Aristotle related to invention.

Reader Discussion

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on September 30, 2020 at 10:39:14 am

“Most of those committed to silencing others belong to a generation taught to be uniquely vigilant against bullying . . . and yet the tactics used by activists to silence opposing views come straight from the bully playbook.”

One need not look further than the desire of those who desire to exchange The Truth Of Love with a lie, by denying the very essence of Love, to understand how it came to pass that “totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere”.

“When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man, too ,is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.” - Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas Address 2012, prior to that moment of time when those same “totalitarian globalist intellects”, with their totalitarian ideas, were able to surround him in The Vatican, making it appear as if public morality and private morality can serve in opposition to one another, and that ““If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected”, denying our Call to Holiness, and thus our Call To Be Temples Of The Holy Ghost.

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on September 30, 2020 at 16:41:17 pm

This is an excellent and timely essay. Dr Stewart has offered valuable insights into the current trend toward thought control now thoroughly entrenched in academia and gaining ground in government and business. The current liberal fascination with the poorly defined concept of cultural appropriation is nothing more than a call to erect social barriers between people of different backgrounds. In the 1960s this was called segregation. BLM is a nothing more than the interference of white liberals in the affairs of people of color. Malcolm X had a good deal to say on the subject of such interference as do a good number of thoughtful spokespersons from a variety of ethnic communities today. The extreme reactions signaled by BLM and silly concepts such as cultural appropriation surely reveals the desperation of progressives sensing the failure of fifty years of social planning, planning that has met with stunning failure. Their plan now appears to be to create a society in which only they are recognized as having a legitimate interest, a society in which only their moral and cultural values are accepted. I believe this is still called totalitarianism.

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on September 30, 2020 at 21:50:18 pm

"We do not live in a totalitarian society, or anything approaching one."

This says too much. It is reminiscent of the dictum, applied to warfare, to the effect that the general staff of the armed forces, the generals, commanders, relevant politicos and subordinate others are all preparing to fight the next war with strategies/tactics/logistics more applicable to what was needed to fight the previous war in a now bygone period, a now bygone era, rather than the current war, rather than facing current circumstances full-front, full-bore. France's Maginot line is the classic example applied to actual warfare in the first half of the 20th century. Perceptions vs Realities.

The problem in broaching this subject applied to totalitarianisms - plural - is a problem of proper and fitting nuance, e.g., avoiding overstatement and excessive caution and understatement both. To wit, we live in an era of increasingly creeping soft totalitarianism, more reflective of Huxley's Brave New World than the Soviet regime or Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Quoting, if only suggestively, from a review of Rod Dreher's recently published Live Not by Lies:

"They point out that the left in power is achieving totalitarian goals — not simply obedience, but the internalization of left-wing ideology by much softer means."

The "they" in question in the above quote are former dissidents from the Soviet and Eastern Bloc regimes.

And the indicators and tell-tale signs are pervasive. The narrow and ever narrowing confines of identity politics, critical race theory, deplatforming and the marginalization of certain groups and dissenting voices, the dreadful conformity in all this, the demagoguery and sophisticated forms of disinformation associated with it all, the technology/consumerism associated with enhancing it all, and much, much more.

Developing ...

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Michael Bond
on October 01, 2020 at 00:29:40 am

As mentioned previously, there is an often useful and occasionally essential distinction to be made between power, authority and influence. This is distinction is relevant to much of our current discourse regarding oppression, cancel culture, supremacy, the marginalized and most vulnerable, etc.

Oppression is intimately connected with the concept of power, as Michel Foucault never seemed to tire of reminding everyone. The key characteristic of marginalized groups is that they have comparatively little, or no power, and very little of authority. This is true now, as it was for Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, as well as people like Mother Teresa, who were able to effect change in the absence of group power. What they had, and in many cases continue to have, was influence, and the reason they had influence was because they had ideas. They were influential because they could think and communicate. The ability to develop and communicate ideas is what produces lasting changes. This does not depend on social status, economic class, ethnicity, or any other characteristic by which human beings may be classified. It is what gives marginalized groups the opportunity to have influence, and consequently to cause change regardless of the fact of "power."

Few ideas are influential ab initio. They derive persuasiveness and stature through being honed by counter-arguments and intellectual challenge. One can see this by comparing the influence of persons such as Ibram Xendi and James Baldwin. The influence of Mr. Baldwin is apparent even after his death. His views and arguments were developed in rigorous debate and public discourse. He famously debated William F. Buckley at Oxford, an encounter in which he was largely considered to have prevailed. Since his influence derived from powerful ideas, rigorously forged and eloquently stated, he remains influential long after his death. In contrast Mr. Xendi's arguments have been protected in a politically correct sarcophagus, unchallenged by rigorous scrutiny. Opposing views must contend with the obstacles of cancel culture and social media reprisal. As a result, his influence, to the extent he has any, is derived from his personality. It is not clear if he is a gifted con man, visionary thinker, or just an artifact of America's weird habits of celebrity. He may be all three, or something else entirely. He may at some point develop true influence, but is unlikely to do so inside a transient and fickle ideological bubble.

It is not merely the ability to express opinions that is the most potent weapon of the marginalized, it is the ability to have those ideas challenged and shaped by robust discourse. When opposing views are suppressed, ideas remain immature. devolve into pandering and become tools of the opportunists rather than vehicles of improvement. Similarly, when ideas of otherwise great potential and promise are protected from challenge and argument, they become stale. They degenerate into slogans and epigrams rather than truths, and become outdated. They are depleted of influence and becoming missed opportunities.

Marginalized people are marginalized precisely because they have little power or authority. Their vulnerability does not consist of fragile feelings, or helplessness in the face of unkind words. It is the exact opposite character, a strength in fact, that provides them with the most effective means of improving themselves. The greatest asset they have is the power of ideas, which requires not only the freedom to express those ideas, but to have those ideas challenged. The power of ideas needs no impositions of "equity" or other social engineering contrivances. Persuasion is more durable and more effective than force. Anyone who proclaims to care about the marginalized and vulnerable without also fiercely advocating for free speech, is either misguided or dishonest, and is not serious, whether he thinks he is or not.

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on October 01, 2020 at 12:32:53 pm

Ibram Xendi Above should be Ibram X. Kendi.

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on October 06, 2020 at 15:22:00 pm

You had me until the bit about,

"We do not live in a totalitarian society, or anything approaching one."

How can this statement be true when you just said (truly) a few paragraphs earlier, that...

"...Free speech for me but not for thee has lately found its way into the newsroom, where a younger generation of reporters seeks to create a culture of prior restraint by demanding the suppression of stories and alternative viewpoints (invariably described as harmful) even on the editorial pages. Crossing them can cost one one’s job."

That opening line in the final paragraph detracts from this otherwise spot-on article. If these ideas are in fact, "pernicious," and "poison," then they we are indeed on a trajectory approaching a totalitarian society. To downplay the danger is foolishness.

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Hektor Bleriot

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