Orwell’s Far Corner
George Orwell in 1941 wrote an essay titled Wells, Hitler and the World State that deserves to be revisited in 2015. The re-examination is timely given the release of the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”
The reasons cited for the decline, include:
Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say. (2015 World Press Freedom Index)
Another freedom report for 2015 by Freedom House also notes the trend of “discarding democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”
Freedom on the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”
George Orwell understood fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and vindictive.
The same was true in Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect beliefs.
In this essay, Orwell shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition. He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity. H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in which it applied.
Several quotes from Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the nature, role and scope of human emotions.
In 1941, Orwell wrote:
The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.
The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own works are based.
He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.
The modern world deceived the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in 2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly as Ebola.
“Science is fighting on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the hold of our emotions.
As in 1941, we struggle to accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our ancient past.
We have great works such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.
Superstition will, for most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies, which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate. “Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly small and narrow.
Orwell is too careful to dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last man, woman and child.
Nor would George Orwell be surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.