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‘Which Side Are You On?’ and Orwell

Detail of a photograph of George Orwell (1943) (Wikimedia Commons)

I came across a typically incisive remark by George Orwell, in his 1945 essay “Through a Glass, Rosily.” Orwell’s point is that if you resolve to tell the truth, it may hurt “your side” sometimes. He wonders whether journalists quite grasp the importance of truth-telling above political allegiance. In 1945, left-wing writers thought it necessary to downplay, excuse or ignore the horrific actions of the Soviet Army as it “liberated” Eastern Europe. A writer in Vienna for the Socialist paper Tribune, for instance, incurred a lot of wrathful replies when he reported on Soviet military atrocities. Orwell refers to “a spate of angry letters, which besides calling [the reporter] a fool and a liar . . . also carried the very serious implication that he ought to have kept silent even if he knew he was speaking the truth.”

Orwell continues:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to each other, anyone who attacks or criticizes A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticize: or at least criticize “constructively,” which in practice means favorably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

Plus ça change!

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Language, of course, is generally employed by human beings to distract or deceive. So there is much to be said for critical listening.