Why Political Correctness is the Opposite of Orwell's Newspeak

Yesterday I fired off a Twitter thread about Orwell and political correctness. It was my good fortune that the author Dorian Lynskey (author of a ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four) chose to retweet it, which meant a few other people did too. I thought I might as well set out the thread here, as a service to those of you who still prefer an artisanal blog post over commodified, disposable tweets.

I see people are discussing George Orwell with regards to ‘political correctness’ and ‘wokeness’ which they regard as ‘Newspeak.’ I think that’s a mistaken analogy. #

First, political correctness (and it’s modern iteration, wokeness) are, first and foremost, pejorative labels for inconvenient political ideas. There are far more people who claim to be “anti PC” or “not woke” than there are people who positively claim either label. #

Labelling something or someone ‘PC’ or ‘woke’ is a way of avoiding having to engage with actual arguments. Using the language of free speech, it seeks to shut down genuine engagement with people with whom you disagree (which is sort of the point of free speech but there we go). #

Everyone just looooves to quote ‘Politics and the English Language’ (and rightly so) but I’d say that the pejoratives “political correctness” and “woke” are also part of the jargon that Orwell was railing against. #

Also, there’s sort of a contradiction between ‘Politics and the English Language’ and the concept of Newspeak. In the book, the point of Newspeak was to excise complex words, in order to stifle complex thoughts. so the antidote to Newspeak is complexity, with words and phrases meaning precise things. #
Take phrases like “unconscious bias” or “cisgender” which have entered the mainstream lexicon relatively recently. They might be annoying to you and they might represent concepts you disagree with, but that doesn’t make them “Orwellian Newspeak.” They’re very precise concepts. #

Likewise with “woke” campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall.’ This is not an erasure such as that which Winston Smith was employed to do in the Ministry of Truth. That campaign is about remembering something (about Cecil Rhodes) that was forgotten or glossed. #
Historical revisionism doesn’t really work if you don’t remember and speak to the version of history that is being rethought. Again, it’s very different to the erasure that was imagined by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. #

If you want to see what genuine erasure in the Orwell/Avel Yenukidze mould looks like, then consider these versions of the same photograph. Apparently, complaining about this kind of racism is “boring” and “woke.” #

Political correctness and wokeness might be irritating & might even have gone ‘too far.’ But anyone who says they’re ‘Orwellian’ clearly hasn’t been reading closely.
Or perhaps they have … but they see O’Brien and Big Brother as heroes to be emulated. #
A version of these thoughts made up a large part of the speech I gave at the Cambridge Union back in 2009. # It’s also something I discussed in this Speakers Corner Trust debate with Claire Fox in 2018. #

8 Replies to “Why Political Correctness is the Opposite of Orwell's Newspeak”

  1. Statues are being pulled down. Textbooks rewritten. Movies, TV, radio, and podcast shows are being deleted or otherwise hidden from public view. There’s an ever expanding range of topics that one can no longer debate in public without swift and serious consequences. This is an attempt at the erasure of nuance, of inquiry, of public debate.
    To pretend that this is about “the introduction of more precise concepts” is nothing bu apologetics for what is at its core an authoritarian, anti-science ideology that will not tolerate dissent.

  2. I cannot agree with you Robert. No fair minded person would argue with improved standards, such as the example you make of the OHS of taking a group of kids hiking etc.
    I believe Orwell did “oppose” what would become PC in his writings about groupthink, which is effectively PC. By any standards, right or wrong, PC is another word for conforming. It is about people agreeing on what is acceptable and I’d argue that stifles debate.
    I believe we are a far more bigoted, racist society than we were 30 years ago and that PC is the major contributor. It’s pretty obvious the backlash to PC helped get Trump elected. Instead of self-righteously telling people which words they can use, wouldn’t it be better to educate them and discuss?
    This reminds me of something I saw on Facebook recently. A woman asked “why is it Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter?” I thought the reasonable thing to do would be explaining it to the woman and perhaps take her along on the journey; instead virtue signallers everywhere accused her of being a racist bitch and far worse words. I know why it’s BLM and have researched and written about the shocking treatment of Australia’s indigenous people but I was hardly offended by the question. PC, I contend, creates this climate and this reaction and has probably deterred the woman I mentioned from ever learning more about the problems faced by black people.

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