What Does Orwellian Really Mean?
In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill uprising last Wednesday, Big Tech platforms have begun clearing out certain right-wing services and accounts known to spread conspiracy theories and promote violence. The cleanup includes removing at least 70,000 Twitter pages known to promote QAnon ; the president’s own Facebook and Twitter pages were also removed or suspended , which effectively deprived Donald Trump of his bully chair in the last days of his administration; and Parler, Twitter’s conservative response, was downloaded from Amazon’s servers , turning into a digital hobo haven for “open-minded social media”.
For any conservative with a solid profile, social media scores have been met by comparisons to the book and author you might know from high school.
“It couldn’t be more Orwellian,” Josh Hawley, a Republican Senator from Missouri, tweeted after Simon and Schuster canceled his book deal in response to his support for reversing the 2020 presidential election. “We live in Orwell’s 1984 ,” Donald Trump Jr. said after Twitter suspended his father’s page, likening the move to the death knell for constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
In fact, the socialist writer George Orwell is likely to flinch at overusing his name to describe the midnight purge of social media accounts that played a role in fueling the brutal US Capitol uprising. Pallavi Yetur, a psychologist and Orwellian expert, told USA Today that 1984 serves as a bridge to Trump’s scenario rather than an allegory of tactics employed by social media corporations:
“There are aspects of the novel that are quite reminiscent, interestingly enough, of Trumpism, although (Trump’s) are right-wing. Things like spreading false information, using information to cover up, not for coverage. “
More broadly, there are many reasons why misuse of allegories is more harmful than beneficial. And that goes beyond George Orwell.
Don’t say something “Orwellian” if you don’t understand Orwell.
If you are going to make literary allusions to describe the world around you, make sure you study the message that the book or author was trying to convey. The 1984 reference provides a harsh viral soundtrack, seemingly embodying the general feelings of repression and censorship imposed by the tyrannical regime.
But discussing Orwell’s ideas as such does a disservice to what the man advocated in practice and misses the nuance of the broader 1984 commentary on language manipulation that Orwell believes could lead to the rise of state-backed propaganda and totalitarianism. …
Orwellian, in its most orthodox sense, speaks of language as a means of control, Yetur told USA Today, continuing:
“A Nazi propagandist like Leni Riefenstahl would be very Orwellian because he is the one who uses words to evoke feelings, call for allegiance, discredit enemies.”
Orwell made the specificity of language a decisive crusade of his literary career. In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, he warned against the inaccurate use of words to provoke dissent and anger against a common enemy:
Political language – and with some variations this is true of all political parties, from conservatives to anarchists – is designed to make lies true and murder respectable, as well as give solidity to the pure wind. You cannot change all this in an instant, but you can at least change your habits, and sometimes you can even, if you scoff loudly enough, send some hackneyed and useless phrase – some kind of boot, Achilles heel, greenhouse, melting pot, acid test , real hell or some other piece of verbal garbage – in the trash bin that it belongs to.
While it’s hard to say how George Orwell viewed the modern concept of deplatforming, it’s safe to assume that his personal political beliefs would be in stark contrast to those of people who have been swept away by the recent digital cleansing. After all, Orwell was an established Socialist Democrat who took up arms alongside the leftist resistance to the fascist government of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
In short, this man’s legacy goes much deeper than a simple idea (“Information Control = BAD”), whether his name was checked on primetime cable news or in the houses of Congress.
Historical links can be reductive
In another controversial denunciation of the Mafia on Capitol Hill, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger likened the events of January 6 to Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that formalized the Nazi mass persecution of German Jews and anticipated the horrors of the Holocaust. (This term is translated from German as “night of broken glass”).
Schwarzenegger’s statement went viral, causing Kristallnacht to hit Twitter over the weekend. “Wednesday was Broken Glass Day right here in the United States,” he proclaimed, drawing a line from the riot of Trump supporters on the steps of Congress to the harbinger of the worst genocide campaign in history. A day later, news anchor Janine Pirro made Arnold even better by citing Kristallnacht again when talking about Amazon, Google and Apple’s decision to remove Parler from their platforms.
Like the 1984 references, both statements – however you think about their intentions – make superficial comparisons between two events that are not the same. In the same way that the Orwellian label is doing Orwell a disservice on every case of censorship, and comparing Wednesday riots or removing an app from Google Play with Kristallnacht only simplifies the deep scars of Jewish suffering.
In the future, we would be better off if everyone with a large platform used more precise wording when criticizing their opponents. We will be able to better understand the present without obscuring the past.