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You're using the term ‘Orwellian’ wrong. Here’s what George Orwell was actually writing about

·9 min read

Add Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn to the list of American politicians who need a George Orwell refresher.

The first-term congressman said in an oddly worded tweet on Tuesday "1984 is a great fiction novel to read but it seems like it is becoming the reality we are currently living under more and more each day," referencing the author’s oft-cited dystopian classic “1984.” Cawthorn was met with criticism in both citing the book as a "fiction novel," all novels are fiction, and questioning if the 25-year-old congressman has ever read the book.

Just last month Republican Reb. Lauren Boebert, the QAnon-friendly conservative firebrand and vocal gun-rights advocate trended on Twitter after invoking the English author. “The only thing Orwell got wrong was the year,” she wrote.

Chances are, you’ve seen Orwell’s name thrown around a lot in the past year on social media, either by conservatives invoking his name with sincerity or by liberals poking fun at conservatives for its misuse.

In January,when Twitter permanently suspended then-President Donald Trump’s Twitter account following the Capitol Hill riot, his son Donald Trump Jr. was quick to invoke Orwell. “We are living Orwell’s 1984,” he tweeted. “Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few.”

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When Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster due to his his widely perceived role in helping incite the riot, he had some words for what he called the “woke mob” at his would-be publisher. “This could not be more Orwellian,” he tweeted in a statement.

Cheeky Twitter users have been quick to criticize the invocation of Orwell from people who, like many of us, probably haven’t dusted off a copy of “1984” since high school.

"Tell me you didn't read Nineteen Eighty-Four without telling me you haven't read Nineteen Eighty-Four," replied @lord_files to Boeber's tweet.

“As we all remember, Orwell's ‘1984’ is about an old man who gets banned from a bird-themed social media site after regularly encouraging violence,” tweeted the progressive think tank Gravel Institute.

“Starting a Go Fund Me to buy conservatives some Orwell books,” wrote @ClueHeywood.

“My son just described having to clean his room as positively ‘Chorewellian,’” tweeted TV writer Gennefer Gross.

Shortly after Hawley's tweet, “1984” rose to the top of Amazon’s top-selling book list, reaching the No. 1 spot. Not bad for a book published in 1949.

The term “Orwellian” has become lazy shorthand for exercises of authority with which one disagrees. When a publisher drops your book because your brand has become toxic, it’s Orwellian. When an internet platform enforces its terms of service and kicks you off, it’s Orwellian. When a store has you removed from the premises for refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic, it’s Orwellian.

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“It tends to be a kind of catch-all for repression,” says David Ulin, associate professor of English at the University of Southern California and former book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He has read and studied Orwell’s works extensively, and he finds Hawley’s and Trump’s Orwell name-checking not just inaccurate but ironic.

“There’s a real irony in the fact that someone who paid such attention to clarity in language – Orwell’s whole thing was about transparency in language, that language needed to be absolutely clear like a pane of glass – that a writer like that becomes a rhetorical tool for the people who would have been at the point of his lance,” Ulin says.

“It’s actually almost counter-Orwellian,” says Pallavi Yetur, a practicing psychotherapist with a master's degree in creative writing whose critical thesis was on Orwell and how his life experiences formed the way he thought about government. “In fact, Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet is Orwellian because he is using language as a way to control people’s opinions about something that’s happening in his favor, and that’s propaganda.”

“Orwellian” is probably the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a writer (Kafkaesque might come close), yet so many are using it wrong. It helps, first, to understand who Orwell was and the deeply held political convictions that fueled his writing.

Orwell hated fascists so much he went to war with them

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay handily titled “Why I Write.” That was the year Orwell joined a leftist militia to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascist Francisco Franco’s military uprising in Spain.

Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell was his pen name) was born to British civil servants in India, a member of what he called the “lower-upper-middle class.” A deeply moral thinker and writer, Orwell didn’t sit comfortably in his privilege but was a committed democratic socialist, “along the lines of a Bernie Sanders,” as Yetur describes him. He was also, Ulin says, a brilliant critic of pre-World War II British liberal isolationism.

So when war broke out in Spain, Orwell saw it as his moral duty to get involved. “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist – after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct,” Orwell wrote. He was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper and nearly died.

His experience in the Spanish Civil War also wised Orwell up to the failures of Soviet communism, whose tactics of oppression and obfuscation mirrored those of the fascists the communists were fighting despite existing on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The opposing ideologies were two sides of the same totalitarian coin, each flavor of undemocratic authoritarian control intolerable to Orwell. “He was very wary of totalitarianism from the left as well as from the right,” Ulin says.

Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War crystallized his politics, which formed the literary fabric of everything he would write thereafter.

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So what’s ‘1984’ actually about, and what makes a thing ‘Orwellian’?

Newspeak. Doublethink. Thoughtcrime. Big Brother.

“1984” is often reduced to its base components, the catchphrases and slogans of the fictional government in Orwell’s dystopian allegory for Soviet totalitarianism. The takeaway is often: Oppression bad, liberty good.

But Orwell’s book is much more sophisticated. Orwell was interested not just in communicating the badness of totalitarian regimes but also dissecting how they succeed through the manipulation of language.

“He was really most concerned with language and how language was used in a propaganda type of way or as a means of control,” Yetur says.

Orwell observed that totalitarian governments, whatever their ideologies, cannot simply impose their wills; they must indoctrinate. Their success requires complicity. “He’s really sharp on the ways in which people get indoctrinated,” Ulin says.

Which brings us to the term “Orwellian.” If Hawley’s book deal getting canceled and Trump getting booted from Twitter aren’t Orwellian, what is?

“'Orwellian,’ in the most orthodox way, is about language as a means of control,” Yetur says. “A Nazi propagandist like Leni Riefenstahl, that would be very Orwellian, because that’s somebody who’s using words to invoke feelings, to invoke allegiances, to discredit enemies."

“Orwellian” is not just applicable to the fascists and communists of Orwell’s era, though. Ulin believes “1984” is relevant to a recent political moment. “There are aspects of the novel that are quite reminiscent, interestingly enough, of Trumpism, even though (Trump’s) right-wing,” Ulin says. “Things like the dissemination of false information, the use of information to obfuscate rather than illuminate.”

He also sees shades of “1984” in social media. In the book, Orwell invents “Two Minutes Hate,” a daily event in which video of the enemy is publicly screened and the audience is encouraged to stir itself up into a froth of rage. “That kinds of reminds me of what we see in terms of social media mob mentality, and this extreme QAnon type of conspiracy theorists,” Ulin says, “working on people’s most negative and virulent emotions and using that as a way to control them but also to make them feel as if they are being heard.”

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What else you should read by Orwell

“1984” and “Animal Farm” are Orwell’s greatest hits and certainly worth revisiting (or reading for the first time; we won’t judge). But Orwell was also a prolific essayist, literary critic, journalist and columnist, and much of his best work is in his less flashy nonfiction. If you want to expand your understanding of Orwell and better appreciate the philosophy of one of our most enduring modern political writers, these works are good starting points.

• “Homage to Catalonia”: Published in 1938, this personal account of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War is essential to understanding every work that followed. “If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: ‘To Fight against Fascism,’” Orwell wrote, “and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.’”

• “Down and Out in Paris and London”: Orwell lived in purposeful poverty for a time in Paris and London, two of the world’s wealthiest cities, and wrote about his experiences in this 1933 memoir. “He made the choice to go to Paris and London and work low-end jobs and live that life, to immerse in it, because that’s where his sympathies were,” says Ulin.

• “Politics and the English Language”: This 1946 essay is a short and essential read on the importance of clarity of language. It was central to both Orwell’s writing and politics, because he saw the two inextricably linked. Corrupt language, Orwell wrote, can also corrupt thought. “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: You're using the term ‘Orwellian’ wrong: A George Orwell explainer

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