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The misuse of Orwell in Conservative Rhetoric

Image: Shraddha Agrawal

If you have watched the news anytime in the past four years, odds are you have heard the term ‘Orwellian’ thrown around. While it is clear it refers to George Orwell. Acclaimed author of novels such as Animal Farm and 1984, who used his writing to warn about the deceptive use of language to limit critical thinking and advance deceptive politics - the use of the term seems to have taken on a rather liberal definition. In the past month, there seems to be an uptick in its usage. Due to Trump’s clear leading role in inciting the Capitol Hill riots, Twitter banned his account. American conservatives went on a rampage against the ban. Most notably, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted that: “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free speech no longer exists in America.”

However, when actually applying the writings of Orwell in this scenario, it becomes evident how bastardized the term has become. Over the past four years, Trump has spewed misinformation reminiscent of 1984’s newspeak. In the novel, the totalitarian regime of Oceania uses Newspeak to “diminish the range of thought” by using language rife with euphemism and circumlocution.” In recent years, the term ‘Orwellian’ has been bastardized from its original form to take on a new role to promote the talking points of radicalized conservatives.

Among American conservatives, ‘Orwellian’ is often invoked when they feel as if their freedom of speech is being limited. However, things conservatives tend to label Orwellian such as mass surveillance or Big Tech - are Authoritarian, not Orwellian. Another recent Conservative backlash against what they claim to be ‘Orwellian’ restrictions, is publisher Simon & Schuster’s decision to not publish Senator Josh Hawley’s book entitled the ‘The Tyranny of Big Tech’ about how technology companies are eroding American liberty. Simon & Schuster stated that “they cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom,” as he helped to incite the riots that took place at the Capitol Hill to overturn what he claims was an election stolen by Joe Biden.

Hawley pushed back claiming that this was on Orwellian attack against his freedom of speech, asserting that “only approved speech can now be published.” Once again, his claim of an Orwellian attack is rooted in authoritarianism rather than Orwellian. By inciting the Capitol Hill riot under the false belief that Trump was the real winner of the presidential election, Hawley is in fact being Orwellian himself by utilizing political jargon in order to promote a false reality.

If anything can be referred to as Orwellian, it is how Trump and his cabinet have manipulated the use of language to distort reality and spread misinformation. Beginning when Trump falsified how large his inauguration crowd is, former counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term ‘alterative facts’ to defend Trump’s lies and culminating in 30,573 false claims made by the former president. Trump’s lies range from claiming to have constructed the most powerful economy in the history of the world to a border crisis threatening the American way of life, but all climax into the attempt to create an alternative reality, where lies are facts and propaganda is history. Similar to the totalitarian regime Oceania in 1984, a constant bombardment of falsified information is in order to obscure reality and limit critical reasoning as to what is the truth and what is not.

The use of the English in order to construct a false reality for deceptive political purposes is dissected in Orwell’s essay Politics in the English language. One particular aspect of the English language that Orwell was cynical of are euphemisms, which he asserts blur clarity in language, and thus the truth. Take, for example, Trump’s slogan ‘America first’—what does that actually entail in foreign policy? It does not mean putting the interest of American people first in international affairs. Instead, ‘America first’ can be characterized by the pattern of Trump to belittle international leaders and risk drawing America into seclusion in order to fuel his own ego. The simplistic phrase of ‘America first’ highlights how deeply entrenched Trump’s policies are in Orwellian thought.

The term Orwellian itself, has come to represent something that Orwell would be entirely against—a recycled, overused phrase used to obscure reality and contribute to the corruption of clarity and truth in the English language. Political discourse, especially in conservatism, has fallen to the pitfalls of Orwell’s nightmares, wherein the distortion of truth that has become so relevant that euphemisms and misinformation are inseparable from conservative arguments and not so critical thinking.

Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor


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