George Orwell, the greatest of all the now largely forgotten international galaxy of disillusioned, despairing, Dostoievskian essayists and political novelists of the Cold War, is still universally known, but not very widely understood.
George Orwell, the greatest of all the now largely forgotten international galaxy of disillusioned, despairing, Dostoievskian essayists and political novelists of the Cold War, is still universally known, but not very widely understood. His two dystopian novels, Animal Farm and Brave New World, have survived as frequent high school reading assignments and in occasional film adaptations. But Orwell would be little cheered by this. Always more of an essayist and cultural critic than a novelist, he did not simply set out, as is now widely assumed, to show the evil of Stalinist dictatorship. He aimed at providing av much broader and more profound analysis of the enduring utopian illusions and dangers of all modern democracies; he is as relevant as ever, but must be read, even re-read repeatedly.
However, he and all the other bleak Cassandras of the 1930s to the 1950s largely missed out on two major factors in the shaping of the totalitarian mind, less important in the ideological politics of his time than they have been for the last half century. The first has been the revelation of the constant vulnerability of intelligent but cloistered young men and women to what they simply take to be 'forward-looking' intellectual currents of their time, hence serving as foot soldiers of unending cultural revolution. The second has been that young women in particular, with their permanent drives to create social consensus and moral improvement, have been far more likely than men to be the numerous, determined, and unbending agents of that cultural revolution, especially when they are able to centre it on collectivist theories of identity. This largely explains what happened to popular ideas from about 1975 to the present.
Of course those ideas did a great deal to improve the real status and power of women in general in modern society. But what Orwell realized, all issues about the status of women aside, was that democratic cultural revolution, beyond any of its stated objectives of the moment, is also nihilist, and can thus be almost casually directed, not to 'liberation', but to a gradual and pervasive enslavement of the human mind. Totalitarianism is not simply the work of an oppressive State, but is carried forward by a kind of mindless collective bullying. He saw that freedom can be slowly crushed, and even gradually made inconceivable, by a constant degradation and perversion of language, to the point of preventing people from even thinking like free men and women, scarcely requiring the visible coercion of a secret political police; policing themselves.
It has been this kind of cultural revolution that should be causing alarm today. Feminism, unlike other radical radical enthusiasms of the 1960s, took root in much of the general female population, some older as well as younger, all emancipated by the contraceptive pill, widening affluence, and increasing formal education. Women were attracted not only by the persuasive arguments for expanded social and legal equality and occupational opportunity, but also to the grander 'gender-specific' notion of the identity of the personal and the political.
In practice, what this proved to mean by the end of the century, with the full arrival of mass post-secondary education for women and the associated indoctrination in raised 'consciousness' has been the rise of the form of language and thought control called political correctness. The term actually goes back to the doctrinal commandments of Stalinist Communists in the 1930s and 1940s, but today's version is an entirely post-1960s feminist creation, which has succeeded in persuading large numbers of women that it is no more than an improving direction in manners. PC has now reached far beyond hothouse campus assemblages, although these continue as an avant-garde in discovering new imagined offences. It now polices the public language of politicians, governments, corporations, and media outlets; at Queen's a couple of years ago, there was even an attempt to monitor students' private conversations. Still riding the runaway steamroller of moral entitlement, PC is totalitarian in the exact sense: it has no boundaries.
So it is now starting to mimic the thought control once practised by Gestapo and KGB informers in university classrooms; in the liberal arts and education faculties, and, perhaps most of all, in the law schools, the madrassas of 'meaningful change'. And the loudest voices raised in policing activities have been those of earnest young women.
Consider a current example, reported in Canadian Lawyer & Law Times, about what happened when a big Toronto law firm tried to be funny in a recruiting ad. It led to a letter to the editor of Obiter Dicta, the Osgoode Hall student periodical, from a student named Kisha Monroe:
“This letter concerns the [Davies Ward Phillips & Vineburg Law Firm] ad on the back of the last issue where the 'D' in Davies is struck through and replaced with a graffitied 'SL', rendering the word 'Slavies'. It has come to my attention that this is an informal hyperbolic nickname that some students who have articled there have coined to refer to the workload they experienced during their time with the law firm. In this ad, Davies appears to be re-claiming this reputation and re-positioning it as just part of their story...
I take real exception to the fact that there are people for whom this joke would even be funny... This is beyond my control...What is even more offensive is that the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is still alive and well with regard to disparities in access to employment, education, wealth and justice that the descendants of slaves still suffer. It is beyond distasteful...Imagine the name of the law firm was not 'Davies' but instead rhymed with a particular concentration camp...I...will read any subsequent running of [the ad] as racial harassment as laid out in the Ontario Human Rights code...I will be writing to Davies as well and encourage likeminded Osgoode community members to let them know that this ad is offensive and illegal..”
The letter was followed by a shorter supporting one in the same vein by another female Osgoode student, adding the pungent observation that 'Davies Slavies' were paid $1450 a week. A female 'Director of Student Affairs' at Davies immediately sent in an abject apology: '...It did not occur to our team that we would be seen as making light of slavery...Obviously it should have...' But this was not enough for another law student, this time at Queen's, Joy Wakefield, who demanded Davies provide evidence that they were taking steps to make sure that they never did anything like this again, and were taking action to increase 'diversity'.
What a horribly depressing experience it is for a politically incorrect male to read the thoughts of these young women about what 'has come to [their] attention'. Their idealism and desire to serve the good is patent, but so is their awe-inspiring historical myopia and ignorance, about freedom, about slavery, and about language. They need to re-read, or read for the first time, the whole of 1984, with special attention to Orwell's 'Glossary of Newspeak' at the end the book. They should follow it up by reading The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, and equally vital, Milan Kundera's The Joke, For the great irony of what they are doing, whether they ever become 'Slavies for Davies' or not, is that they are trying to turn themselves, their fellow students, and their whole society, into slaves, slaves like those created by the coercive utopians of 20th century Europe, not those of past centuries, Secure in their righteous rage, they will not be deterred by the nervous laughter of male colleagues. They need to be opposed head on, for their own good and for the good of all men and women.
[Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian]
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
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