A staple of high school English curricula, George Orwell's 1984 is surely our era's most frequently cited literary work. Most commonly, we call upon it to identify some hazy threat to our vaguely defined freedoms, the relevant villain being labelled "Orwellian". Though vague in its implication, the term is generally used to allude to the novel's caricature of dystopian oppression (rather than, say, to Orwell's edict in his essay A Nice Cup of Tea that true tea-lovers abstain from sugar).
In 1984, the citizens of Airstrip One are the subject of constant surveillance, monitored for their utter dedication to a leader known only as Big Brother. The world of the novel is bleak and the characters cruel, naive, or despairing. It's a true totalitarian worst-case scenario. What this means is that the book's stark horrors have therefore become the go-to object of comparison for politicians who mistake disagreement for censorship, or journalists who confuse boycotts for attacks on free speech.
When a word or phrase is used too often, and so often disingenuously, it loses its grip on meaning. "Orwellian" is now a symptom of a political environment in which language erases the details of a problem rather than describing them. Orwell himself wrote that that "the word 'fascism' has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'". The same is now true of "Orwellian".
In his essay Politics and the English Language, published shortly after the Second World War, Orwell fretted over the "decadence of our language", and the consequent threat to political discourse. He argued that obscure and cliched writing provides cover for foolish thinking and avoiding responsibility, particularly in politics:
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.
There are, of course, many equivalents today.
As an antidote, Orwell provided six rules for clear, intelligent and elegant prose. The first is a good one: "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print."
Perhaps, then, Orwell would find worrying the recent spike in the use of his own adjectivised name and the consequent deadening of its significance. We have called so many actions, regimes, speeches, policies, politicians and journalists Orwellian that the word no longer serves the purpose a good word should: it no longer draws distinctions.
Last week, US Republican senator Josh Hawley proclaimed that publisher Simon & Schuster cancelling his book deal "could not be more Orwellian". In fact, Hawley's contract was cancelled because he loudly parroted Trump's electoral fraud lies, and was among those who encouraged the MAGA mob's January 6 attack on the Capitol. Donald Trump jnr, when his father was banned from Twitter last week, declared "We are living Orwell's 1984."
Both these complaints contradict their makers' avowed commitment to "free speech", which these private corporations are exercising in choosing not to disseminate dangerous propaganda. But the overblown invocation of 1984's Big Brother distracts from this hypocrisy, raising the stakes of their whining from disagreement with a corporation to national existential crisis.
Australians are equally fond of the analogy. In 2018, Barnaby Joyce criticised the "Orwellian groupthink" in politics in order to obliquely criticise then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. In July last year, conspiracy-enjoying Liberal MP Craig Kelly posted an anti-Black Lives Matter image to Facebook that falsely suggested biased US media was concealing violence, declaring "we used to think that 1984 was just a novel". Kelly later reused the literary reference to condemn Premier Daniel Andrews' COVID restrictions.
Yes, "Orwellian" is used across the ideological spectrum, but the term is most notably exploited by conservatives - because it entails a vagueness, a shapeless ominousness, meaning the argument to which it refers doesn't need to be worked out beyond its stoking fears of an imprecise, encroaching oppression.
Kelly sharing this rhetoric with his right-wing American counterparts is among many indications that the Pacific Ocean does not protect us from the kind of extremism the US is experiencing. Such extremism is motivated by a fantasy that envisions the left as a vast Big Brother-like network of oppressive agents. It's a logic employed to justify an increasingly extreme response.
As the world changes, so must our language. If we are to identify the kind of tyranny Orwell warned against in 1984, we must use words that expose rather than obscure it. For example, rather than resorting to reductive labels, we could say Craig Kelly and Josh Hawley are gleefully spreading unfounded conspiracies and causing public anxiety with dangerous misinformation, all with the goal of consolidating power.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.