George Orwell: Fortune Teller
Excerpts from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language
Orwell has always been credited as someone all-seeing, a writer who could tell the future. In response to any trauma or particularly vile act of government or surveillance (of which there are many), newspapers and websites plaster ORWELL WAS RIGHT across their homepages. Journalists make comparisons between modern politics and those that Orwell described all that time ago.
But Orwell wasn’t a soothsayer. He wasn’t given some preternatural ability to see through time. He was just an astute student of the way power functions. It’s evident in his rejection of class, that the man sat uncomfortably with ideas of division, and was able to diagnose the way that we, as humans, use our power. The fact that the past is wont to repeat itself, or at least heavily influence the way behave in the present… the fact that ORWELL IS RIGHT is more of a commentary on us than it is on him. That, despite everything, we’re not so good with power. That we can’t help but use it for bad.
The manipulation of language and its relationship to power is central to George Orwell’s writing. In Animal Farm, we see the pigs intentionally keep the other farm animals in the dark through their continued writing and re-writing of history, their constant shift between traditional forms of Animalism and their bastardised form of the movement that creates a caste system where the pigs become the aristocracy.
All Animals are Equal becomes All Animals Are Equal But Some Are More Equal Than Others. Freedom becomes slavery.
In 1945, the same year in which Animal Farm was published, Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language. In this essay, he outlines many of the arguments and ideas expressed in his fiction. We’ve included some of the more pertinent ideas below.
In Animal Farm, the inability for the Animals to speak, to read, to write, to have the language to question the motives and behaviours of the pigs, is what refuses them the ability to fight back. To resist. Language and the manipulation of language, according to Orwell, is central to helping us understand power and how it changes the world around us.
Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world — George P Lakoff and Gil Duran in The Guardian
In ‘defending the indefensible’ and using language that intentionally misleads, the powerful are able to make the ‘indefensible’ commonplace and routine. In Animal Farm, Squealer (the pig’s spokesperson) calls regular transgressions ‘tactics, comrades, tactics!’
If Animal Farm teaches us anything for the modern day it is to pay attention. To not allow ourselves to become seduced by the ‘aspirin at our elbow’ and to question the language, words and actions of the powerful. Orwell wasn’t a fortune teller, but his work is essential.
Now, perhaps, more than ever.