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. #