Earlier this week I posted the text of an essay in which George Orwell repudiated his famous 1942 claim that “pacifism is objectively pro-fascist.” Here are the key passages from that essay:
“[I am struck by] the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time. I don’t mean merely that controversies are acrimonious. They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects. I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point. … Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a “case” with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them.
“We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant.
“This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. … The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.”
This is worth taking seriously, I think.
Orwell isn’t calling for “civility” here. He’s not asking people to hold back from arguing forcefully, even angrily. Bitterness and dispute are not his enemy. Neither is he calling for even-handedness. He’s not asking people to take unserious arguments seriously, or to give false claims undue respect. And he is not, finally, criticizing “extremists” or lauding an imaginary “reasonable” center.
What he’s saying is that a fair, honest attack is ultimately the most effective one.
As I noted on Tuesday, Orwell’s original 1942 essay had made three important arguments — that pacifism was an ineffective response to Nazism, that it was a moral philosophy born out of ignorance and shelteredness, and that many of those then calling themselves pacifists were actually fascist sympathizers in disguise. The problem with his “objectively pro-fascist” dig, as Orwell himself soon realized, is that it tore down the distinctions between those, collapsing three good arguments into one shoddy one.
Jon Stewart made an appeal earlier this month that on its surface seems to mirror Orwell’s. In announcing his upcoming Rally to Restore Sanity, he let loose “a clarion call for rationality” in political discourse, holding up proposed signs for the rally that included one reading “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”
But as Glenn Greenwald has noted, Stewart’s concern with the tone of political debate missed the mark:
“Political debates are inherently acrimonious — much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity — but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas. The same is true for war criminal John Yoo, who also appeared, with great politeness, on The Daily Show. Moreover, some acts are so destructive and wrong that they merit extreme condemnation (such as Bush’s war crimes). I don’t think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it’s usually the ideas themselves — not the tone used to express them — that are the culprits.”
I don’t know if Greenwald’s embrace of acrimony was an intentional echo of Orwell, but his argument is spot on. Sometimes you’re going to have to call someone out. Sometimes people behave horribly, and when they do, it’s no vice to say so.
Orwell could throw punches with the best of them. He rarely hesitated to speak his mind, and his typewriter was a terrible swift sword. But he understood that you can be righteous without being vicious, that you can eviscerate without falsifying, and that the first step in correcting a wrong is to understand it fully.