On November 7, a statue of George Orwell was unveiled at a piazza outside Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, in London. The George Orwell Memorial Fund chose that location because for two years (1941–1943) Orwell was a BBC employee.
Finding myself in London for business reasons at the end of that week, I arranged to have dinner with a good friend, Oliver Kamm, who writes on politics, economics, and language for The Times. We both see an enormous gulf between Orwell’s incontrovertible literary and political influence and his assertions about language.
The sculptor who created the statue, Martin Jennings, calls Orwell an “ethical and intellectual hero” who “anatomised totalitarianism and the misuse of language for political ends with unequalled precision” (see Jennings’s BBC blog post). I’m not competent to judge whether Orwell had an insightful political analysis of totalitarianism (as opposed to just hating it). But one thing on which Oliver and I agree is that people’s admiration for Orwell’s erudition concerning language is sadly misplaced.
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
English was already the planet’s most influential and widely used language. Did most of those holding an opinion on the matter in 1946 really think English was sick or damaged? Or is this a case of Orwell trying “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” the charge the essay goes on to make about political language?
And when Orwell avers that “it is generally assumed” that we cannot fix it, did he understand that he was making disreputable use of an agentless passive? He would later tell us, bossily: “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” but the rule didn’t hold for him, it seems.
Regular readers will recall my previous criticisms here on Lingua Franca; I have discussed the flagrant unoriginality of Orwell’s critique of lazy clichés and polysyllabic jargon, the absurdity and impossibility of trying to ensure that you should never use any familiar phrase or figure of speech, and the intellectual dishonesty of one stratagem with which Orwell tries to bias us against a familiar syntactic construction. (One day I will address his ill-judged ideas on Newspeak and its effect on thought, but there is no space for that here.)
However, my low regard for his linguistic views does not nullify my respect for his memorable political novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, or his liberal views on topics like freedom of expression. Chiseled into the wall beside the Broadcasting House statue is a sentence from a proposed preface for Animal Farm that was never actually used or published. Unlike the “never use the passive” nonsense, it is worth commemorating:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
That dictum is highly relevant today. It has no truck with the notion of “safe spaces” where topics are prohibited lest offense be caused to those of a differing persuasion; it opposes not just government censorship but also voluntary segregation into isolated media bubbles; it offers no comfort to the idea of trigger warnings permitting unwelcome subjects to be evaded; it rejects the strategy of keeping unpopular speakers off campus.
America’s universities have been getting a bad reputation of late for caving in to illiberal demands by students contemptuously referred to as the Snowflake Generation. The bad press is largely unjustified (see this excellent commentary in The Economist on “the intolerant fifth”). Posturing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter would love to see themselves as martyrs to violent lefties, but in practice they seem to get around safely and make plenty of speeches.
I spent the majority of my career on the famously turbulent campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, where the students are always ready to shut the campus down with a political demonstration or protest march, or imprison the Board of Regents in a dining hall. Yet on that campus I heard lectures by (for example) not only the radical democratic socialist Cornel West but also the fiercely pro-Israel conservative British journalist Melanie Phillips. Both events were peaceful and free from disruption. Both speakers said things I didn’t agree with, but (I beg your pardon) free speech never promised you a rose garden.
The George Orwell Memorial Fund has been kind enough to have a very useful and relevant saying literally carved in stone. Let’s keep it in mind every time an unpopular speaker gets an invitation.