The use (and abuse) of George Orwell

georgeorwell I am a George Orwell fan. Or, to be more precise, Orwell is locked in a perpetual cagematch with Kurt Vonnegut for the coveted "Graeme's favourite author" prize. I've read all of his novels, and as I write this, his collection of essays is sitting on my desk.

Due to this enthusiasm for all things Orwell, I'm always a little put out when I sense his legacy is being shanghaied by people who do not really understand his writing.  They use Orwell as a kind of cultural shortcut to imply malfeasance, and they end up diluting  his ideas in the process.

This weekend served up a perfect example. On Friday, owners of Amazon's Kindle device were justifiably annoyed to find that their copies of 1984 and Animal Farm had been remotely deleted due to a copyright dispute. Observers, apparently seduced by the delicious irony inherent in censoring Orwell, fell all over themselves to describe Amazon's behaviour as "Orwellian", "a Big Brother move", and even casting the books  into the "memory hole". It may seem obvious to appropriate Orwell's language in this case. It is certainly easy. But it is also entirely incorrect.

First of all, the term "Orwellian" is a bit tricky. Orwell wrote six novels, three nonfiction books, and countless essays. He wrote on everything from politics to religion to shooting elephants to English culture. So really, just about anything could be considered "Orwellian". However, in modern usage, the term usually applies to the political ideas he develops in 1984 and, to a lesser extent, Animal Farm. And here is where the trouble starts. Orwell's political project is specific; it deals with how a totalitarian regime can achieve and maintain control over all aspects of an individual's life, the so-called "boot stamping on a human face forever." It is not about copyright disputes and consumer rights.

As tempting as it is, likening Amazon to a totalitarian regime strains credulity. Yes, its behaviour in this case is reprehensible. But it isn't "Orwellian". It is not a state, not does it possess coercive authority over any significant proportion of the population. And the things it can apparently control - the content of its E-Readers - is sufficiently prosaic to fall well short of Orwell's dystopian vision. Say nothing of the fact that you can buy a copy of 1984 at any bookstore. Or read it totally free online, without dropping $400 on a Kindle.  Sure, copyright laws are a mess and Amazon shouldn't jerk around its customers. But this is a corporate public relations disaster, not the heavy hand of Big Brother.

More to the point, the sheer volume of outrage voiced over Amazon's bad behaviour tells us we're a long ways from an Amazon-dominated Airstrip One, festooned with "Jeff Bezos is Watching You" posters. Orwell imagined a world where the expression of dissent was not only impossible, but the state was also working to make even the formulation of dissenting thoughts impossible. Judging by the state of Internet rage, dissent and criticism is alive and well, despite Amazon's depredations.

So, a humble plea: stop hijacking the work of brilliant writer to make unrelated points. It is at best lazy, and at worst weakens the descriptive and critical power of Orwell's language. And in a world of government-sanctioned surveillance and state-approved torture, we need his language more than ever.