In a comment the other day I mentioned that I had come across a long preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell’s dystopian novel about the takeover by pigs of a farm, and what happened thereafter. It was a satire on the Soviet Union, and was much in vogue (via the Penguin edition) when I was a student. Orwell planned the book in 1937, but did not finish it until the end of 1943. He couldn’t get it published, initially, because its tone and plain reference to the USSR was at odds with the wartime alliance with ‘Uncle Joe’ and the brave Russians. And when it was published, it appeared without his intended Preface, which was not made public until the 1970s.
It was not the British Government that took a stand against his Preface. Official censorship during the war, Orwell thought, had not been particularly irksome. The cause in his case was the self-censorship of the British publishers. Orwell commented: If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. I’ll reproduce the striking paragraph that I published in my comment:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
The paradox, Orwell wrote, was that although you are not allowed to criticise the Soviet government, at least you are reasonably free to criticise our own. Hardly anyone will print an attack on Stalin, but it is quite safe to attack Churchill, at any rate in books and periodicals.
And more: The servility with which the greater part of the English intelligentsia have swallowed and repeated Russian propaganda from 1941 onwards would be quite astounding if it were not that they have behaved similarly on several earlier occasions. On one controversial issue after another the Russian viewpoint has been accepted without examination and then publicised with complete disregard to historical truth or intellectual decency.
It does sound contemporary, doesn’t it? Change a word or two, and you could be talking about Australia today with, for example, ‘climate change’ being the subject rather than Soviet Russia. Let’s keep going. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book [Animal Farm] because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are. The success of, for instance, the Left Book Club over a period of four or five years shows how willing they are to tolerate both scurrility and slipshod writing, provided that it tells them what they want to hear.
The issue, he says, is simple. Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say ‘Yes’. But give it a concrete shape, and ask, ‘How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?’, and the answer more often than not will be ‘No’, In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure.
George Orwell writes so well! I will devote a later essay here to him and to his books and essays. I think I have read all of them. And, to say it again, what he was writing about in 1943 is as sensible today as it was then. You only have to change a few of the nouns (in the above quotation, replace ‘Stalin’ by ‘the view that climate change is really a huge worry’). Since I have written a couple of pieces about freedom of speech (here, for example), I am happy to quote him on that subject. I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice… To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.
I wish I had thought of ‘the gramophone mind’. I’ve seen a few examples of it on this website.
He concludes like this. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The common people still vaguely subscribe to that doctrine and act on it. In our country — it is not the same in all countries: it was not so in republican France, and it is not so in the USA today — it is the liberals who fear liberty and the intellectuals who want to do dirt on the intellect: it is to draw attention to that fact that I have written this preface.
What can be done about it? He was talking about Britain, and I am talking about Australian 70 years afterwards. In many areas, not just ‘climate change’, but in the debate about what to do with respect to the threat of terror from Islamic fundamentalists, the debate about how to treat refugees, the debate about the meaning of marriage, the debate about Israel and Palestine, there is a powerful orthodoxy that is not interested in debate, but only in its own authority. Its members support one another. The gramophone mind is alive and well here.
Its reach is wide. The mass media, the universities and the single-interest groups are all of the same opinion. How could anyone oppose such far-sighted, right-thinking, progressive people? Should we not just follow their authority? The systems of public honour celebrate their leaders. Politicians learn quickly to duck for cover if they say anything that is vaguely hostile to the orthodoxy, and those who take on the challenge will not find a path to power themselves.
I salute George Orwell, a quirky, determined and rational seeker after truth and intellectual honesty. I do not think he ever met Karl Popper, about whom I wrote some little time ago, but I think they would have enjoyed each other’s approach to knowledge. They were, neither of them, afraid of any orthodoxy.