Politics 5 min read

Orwell on Self-Censorship

Does censorship affect every writer, even those covering “unpolitical” topics? George Orwell argues that it does, and, moreover, that it leads to self-censorship and the ossification of language.
Statue of George Orwell by Martin Jennings, currently located outside Broadcasting House, London (detail from a photo by Matt Brown).

Can writers avoid censorship by writing about subjects that are “unpolitical”? George Orwell argues that it’s impossible. In an essay titled “The Prevention of Literature,” published on January 1946 in Polemic, Orwell grapples with the issue of censorship, and, in particular, how the blight of totalitarian censorship infects the mind and transforms into its insidious sibling: self-censorship.

“Freedom of the press,” Orwell writes, “means the freedom to criticize and oppose.” The writer’s enemies are not, as might be assumed, those who seek to suppress him directly, but rather the “general drift of society.” What Orwell means by this is a more subtle process of the concentration of the press in the hands of a few wealthy capitalists, the reluctancy of the people to spend money on books—which forces writers into dull, unoriginal “hack work”—and the encroachment of bureaucratic bodies—who, while providing work, also dictate his opinions.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville made a related observation. He noted that censorship is actually weaker in a tyranny because there is only one tyrant who wants to stifle your views, but in a democracy the majority can suppress your ideas by ostracizing you. You can flee from a tyrant, but you cannot swim against the torrent of general opinion. Orwell outlines other factors, but the important point is that censorship doesn’t necessarily have to come from some dictator or autocrat: it may well originate in societal trends.

But what about “unpolitical” writing? Could a writer not avoid the problems of censorship by steering clear of any topics that might challenge this or that orthodoxy? The problem with such a view, Orwell explains, is that it assumes that the writer is a “mere entertainer,” or a hack. But this is not actually the case. To understand why we need to know what literature actually is, which Orwell defines as “an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” If we cannot say freely what we like and what we dislike, we cannot produce literature:

The journalist is unfree, and is conscious of unfreedom, when he is forced to write lies or suppress what seems to him important news: the imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer, but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his own mind: he cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties dry up. Nor can he solve the problem by keeping away from controversial topics. There is no such thing as genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness.

The greatest threat to intellectual freedom comes from ideology. The adherents of an ideology think they already possess, in Hannah Arendt’s words, a “key to history,” which makes every fact and occurrence a matter of interpretation rather than investigation. Everything can be explained through the lens of their ideology. And, in turn, because objective truth no longer exists, history itself is something that is created rather than learned:

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. … every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revaluation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment.

Because totalitarian leaders can only remain in power through either violence or fraud, totalitarianism “does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia,” with facts and interpretations liable to be changed at any moment. Such a society can never become “intellectually stable.” Moreover, Orwell argues that the chilling effects of totalitarianism can spread outside its borders:

But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Whenever there is an enforced orthodoxy—or even two orthodoxies, as often happens—good writing stops. This was well illustrated by the Spanish Civil War. To many English intellectuals the war was a deeply moving experience, but not an experience about which they could write sincerely. There were only two things that you were allowed to say, and both of them were palpable lies: as a result, the war produced acres of print but almost nothing worth reading.

But still, those of us who live in Western democracies don’t live under totalitarian censorship. Do we not have enough freedom to express ourselves as we wish? Writing about ideological positions, Orwell makes an important observation on how orthodoxies destroy the possibility of good faith debate:

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.

The polarization of politics, especially in America, makes the above true today. As the political sphere is pulled apart towards the left and right extremes, the people in each orthodoxy begin to see their opponents as either devious or dumb. In a situation where each side views the other as being composed of either idiots or liars, the possibility of honest discourse vanishes.

This presents a problem for the sincere writer. The thing with having two orthodoxies is that when there is only one, a critic is essentially a “heretic,” someone who challenges the orthodoxy’s tenets, and their critique stands or falls on its merits—or at least has a chance to do so if the arguments are heard. On the other hand, when there are two orthodoxies, the critic will be assumed to be part of one or the other camp, depending on the target of their arguments. They won’t be seen as a “heretic,” but a member of the opposing faction. Even if the writer has no such affiliations, any argument they make which one side doesn’t like will automatically place them in the enemy camp.

This writer is now stuck between two bad choices. Those wanting to be read by as many people as possible might want to distance themselves from politics by avoiding any opinions that might be controversial, opinions which may anger one of the orthodoxies. But because you don’t know exactly what you can and cannot touch, you’ll steer clear of anything that might have even the slightest potential to cause a stir. The result is massive self-censorship and constriction of thought, and, in turn, bland and banal work.

The other thing a writer can do is openly declare themselves for this or that side. But this also doesn’t work because now your opinions have been chosen for you, and you will have to stick to them or risk alienating the only audience you have left. Once again you’ll censor yourself, and while you’ve expanded the range of topics you can talk about, you’ve chained your thought to an ideology, relinquishing your chances of producing original work.