As I Please

in Tribune

8 December 1944

George Orwell

FOR years past I have been an industrious collector of pamphlets, and a fairly steady reader of political literature of all kinds. The thing that strikes me more and more—and it strikes a lot of other people, too—is 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. When I look through my collection of pamphlets—Conservative, Communist, Catholic, Trotskyist, Pacifist, Anarchist or what-have-you—it seems to me that almost all of them have the same mental atmosphere, though the points of emphasis vary. 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. The same propaganda tricks are to be found almost everywhere. It would take many pages of this paper merely to classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit—disregard of an opponent’s motives. The key-word here is ‘objectively’.

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. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.

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. For there are occasions when even the most misguided person can see the results of what he is doing. Here is a crude but quite possible illustration. A pacifist is working in some job which gives him access to important military information, and is approached by a German secret agent. In those circumstances his subjective feelings do make a difference. If he is subjectively pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he isn’t, he won’t. And situations essentially similar though less dramatic are constantly arising.

In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly pro-Nazi, and extremist left-wing parties will inevitably contain Fascist spies. 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. It is this habit of mind, among other things, that has made political prediction in our time so remarkably unsuccessful.

.     .     .     .     .

THE following leaflet (printed) was passed to an acquaintance of mine in a pub:


The first American soldier to kill a Jap was Mike Murphy.
The first American pilot to sink a Jap battleship was Colin Kelly.
The first American family to lose five sons in one action and have a naval vessel named after them were the Sullivans.
The first American to shoot a Jap plane was Dutch O’Hara.
The first coastguardsman to spot a German spy was John Conlan.
The first American soldier to be decorated by the President was Pat Powers.
The first American admiral to be killed leading his ship into battle was Dan Callahan.
The first American son-of-a-bitch to get four new tyres from the Ration Board was Abie Goldstein.

The origin of this thing might just possibly be Irish, but it is much likelier to be American. There is nothing to indicate where it was printed, but it probably comes from the printing-shop of some American organization in this country. If any further manifestos of the same kind turn up, I shall be interested to hear of them.

.     .     .     .     .

THIS number of Tribune includes a long letter from Mr Martin Walter, Controller of the British Institute of Fiction-Writing Science Ltd, in which he complains that I have traduced him. He says (a) that he did not claim to have reduced fiction-writing to an exact science, (b) that numbers of successful writers have been produced by his teaching methods, and (c) he asks whether Tribune accepts advertisements that it believes to be fraudulent.

With regard to (a): ‘It is claimed by this Institute that these problems (of fiction-writing) have been solved by Martin Walter, who, convinced of the truth of the hypothesis that every art is a science at heart, analyzed over 5,000 stories and eventually evolved the Plot Formula according to which all his own stories and those of his students throughout the world are constructed.’ ‘I had established that the nature of the “plot” is strictly scientific.’ Statements of this type are scattered throughout Mr Walter’s booklets and advertisements. If this is not a claim to have reduced fiction-writing to an exact science, what the devil is it?

With regard to (b): Who are these successful writers whom Mr Walter has launched upon the world? Let us hear their names, and the names of their published works, and then we shall know where we are.

With regard to (c): A periodical ought not to accept advertisements which have the appearance of being fraudulent, but it cannot sift everything beforehand. What is to be done, for instance, about publishers’ advertisements, in which it is invariably claimed that every single book named is of the highest possible value? What is most important in this connexion is that a periodical should not let its editorial columns be influenced by its advertisements. Tribune has been very careful not to do that—it has not done it in the case of Mr Walter himself, for instance.

It may interest Mr Walter to know that I should never have referred to him if he had not accompanied the advertisement he inserted some time ago with some free copies of his booklets (including the Plot Formula), and the suggestion that I might like to mention them in my column. It was this that drew my attention to him. Now I have given him his mention, and he does not seem to like it.

.     .     .     .     .

ANSWER to last week’s problem. The three errors are:
  1. The ‘who’ should be ‘whom’.
  2. Timon was buried below the high-tide mark. The sea would cover him twice a day, not once, as there are always two high tides within the twenty-four hours.
  3. It wouldn’t cover him at all, as there is no perceptible tide in the Mediterranean.

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