*This article was originally posted in 2015. Its relevance has not lessened.
Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical story criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Union, was first published in 1945. What may be surprising to some is the difficulty Orwell had in getting the book published. At the time, many in Britain were enamored with Stalin and the USSR, especially those who worked in the publishing industry. Orwell’s manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers, in large part because of its message. When it was finally published, Orwell prepared a preface to the work that, for some unknown reason, was not included. The preface was discovered in 1972 and published as an essay titled “The Freedom of the Press.” I’d like to highlight some portions of his essay as they bear on our current situation (that I noted recently) where it is no longer acceptable to state certain ideas that are deemed intolerant.
In discussions about freedom today (including both freedom of religion and freedom of the press), it is common for people to excuse the acts of silencing and oppression by arguing that the oppression is not coming from the government. Thus, there is no violation of freedom. Orwell begins by noting that it was not the government that was threatening freedom in his day but the fear of public pressure.
But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.
The problem was not government censorship but self-censorship. Though secular media like to give the impression that they are objective, they bind themselves to certain ideas that they deem true. Then they refuse to consider an opinion that contradicts their widely-held truths.
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it…. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals. (emphasis mine)
Orwell noted the hypocrisy and intentional blindness created by this rabid devotion to the current ideals. Any piece of information that fit the prevailing narrative was championed, while evidence to the contrary was suppressed.
The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards the USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards. The endless executions in the purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now.
Their devotion to the orthodoxy of the day led them to violate their professed allegiance to freedom of speech. They gave lip service to the idea but rejected it in practice when it violated their cherished beliefs.
The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. But freedom, as Rosa Luxembourg [sic] said, is “freedom for the other fellow.” The same principle is contained in the famous words of Voltaire: “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it. The ordinary people in the street-partly, perhaps, because they are not sufficiently interested in ideas to be intolerant about them-still vaguely hold that “I suppose everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.” It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice. (emphasis mine)
In a sad irony, those who claimed to champion freedom and tolerance sought to promote and defend it by crushing those who seemed to oppose it. The campaign against the enemies does not only address actions but also targets ideas that are deemed harmful.
One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that “bourgeois liberty” is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought (emphasis mine)
Orwell’s essay also points to two truths that are important to grasp in combating the present moves to destroy freedoms. The first is to recognize the danger of buying into a current cultural orthodoxy. We look back and find it appalling that people supported Stalin and excused his crimes, whose brutal dictatorship led to the loss of millions and millions of lives. But isn’t it shocking that those who had the willingness to stand up and warn about the coming danger were marginalized and silenced? The world needed voices to cry out that Stalin’s regime was not progress but was destructive. It needed voices to challenge the current orthodoxy. It needed unpopular opinions to be expressed.
And this tolerance or [sic = of?] plain dishonesty means much more than that admiration for Russia happens to be fashionable at this moment. Quite possibly that particular fashion will not last. For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.
We can look back now and be baffled at how people could support Stalin. But what widely held opinions in our day will people be baffled at 80 years from now? And how are we suppressing opinions that are unpopular in our day but will eventually be shown to be right?
How can we guard ourselves against becoming captive to such a widely-held but horribly wrong opinion? Because Orwell is making a secular argument, the most he can stand on is western tradition.
If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton: “By the known rules of ancient liberty.” The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist.
Orwell is correct that liberty is a foundational truth of western culture. And, as he goes on to say, “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But the ultimate solution for wrong-headed group-thinking is not western tradition but biblical truth. We must not allow the current cultural opinion to move us to discard the truth of the Bible when it conflicts with the current orthodoxy. We have to allow the Bible to move us to discard current orthodoxy and hold fast to biblical truth when they conflict. If we are not going to fall into horribly flawed ideas like supporting Stalinism, we have to let the Bible challenge our current way of thinking. Only if we allow our thinking to be challenged by God’s Word can we be sure we are not bound to the cultural winds of the day.