Orwell, Freedom of Speech and the Meaning of Liberty

In these turbulent political times, what can we learn from the man widely regarded as one of the most important voices of his generation?

Politics feels particularly tribal these days with little room for balance or nuance around today’s main discussion topics. In Britain this polarisation has become glaringly apparent in the aftermath of the last year’s EU referendum and the recent general election.

In the United States, the political earthquake that was Donald Trump’s election to the White House, shortly followed by the “alternative facts” debacle, led to an increased interest in the work of George Orwell. We were living, it seemed, in a post-truth era and Orwell was the man who could offer the literary antidote.

After all, this most prescient of authors had written of this almost seventy years earlier in his dystopian classic 1984. Sales of this book, incidentally, soared in the wake of the alternative facts revelations.

It is tempting to theorise what Orwell would have made of the current political scene, but such an analysis would likely require more than one article.

There is, however, one area in which it is not hard to hypothesise about Orwell’s views and that is the current trend for No Platforming – that is, the banning of those with supposedly ‘unsayable’ views from expressing them in public.

Whilst this always dubious practice has historically been used to suppress those with violent, fascist tendencies, this is no longer always the case. Nowadays, it takes much less to get no platformed, as people like Julie Bindel, Peter Tatchell and even Richard Dawkins can attest. The no platforming of Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist for many decades, is particularly absurd. An indication of the direction this policy has taken. People are now being made into pariahs for misjudged or ill-advised comments that fall foul of the prevailing liberal orthodoxy.

Another incident, not quite no platforming but along the same lines, came when Katie Hopkins, the notorious shock-jock, was subject to a mass walkout when speaking at Brunel University in 2015. It is necessary to insert a caveat here. Katie Hopkins’ ‘views’ are deeply unpleasant and purposely provocative. But then, isn’t this the point? Would it not be more effective to demonstrate these facts within a debate? Any competent debater could comfortably dismantle and discredit Hopkins’ arguments within a few minutes. No platforming such people validates their views in a way they do not deserve. It gives them the opportunity to accuse opponents of being afraid to debate them.

Take the example of former BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time in 2009. Given a platform by the BBC, Griffin proceeded to deliver a flustered and unconvincing performance which prompted criticism from all sides, including his own supporters. Surely this proves that, rather than ignoring such individuals, giving them the opportunity to discredit themselves is preferable? After all, when you’ve just beaten yourself in a debate, who else can you blame?

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Freedom of speech is an essential part of any civilised democracy and no platforming in its current incarnation is becoming a threat to this. Britain’s universities shouldn’t be places where students are shielded from views which might upset them. Instead they should be places in which they are free to rebut, repudiate and counter their opponents. You cannot win a debate by muzzling your adversary.

All of this brings the conversation back to Orwell. What would he have made of the current state of debate in the UK? In attempting to answer this question, perhaps we should turn to one of his best-known utterances, namely: “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The beauty of this quote is that it works both ways. People should have the right to tell us what we don’t want to hear, because their right to do so guarantees our right to do the same. This is the foundation of freedom of speech.

If we want to build and live in a fully inclusive society we must be willing to be exposed to views with which we disagree, sometimes even vehemently oppose. Provided people’s opinions do not incite hatred or violence then they must be guaranteed the right to express them. Failure to assure this right is not conducive to inclusive discourse and will inevitably foster resentment, tension and a generation of people who crumble when confronted with views which do not mirror their own: an echo chamber generation. To quote Orwell again: “threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most divisive political figures in recent years, said during Labour’s recent general election campaign: “everybody we meet knows something we don’t and everybody can teach us something.” Politicians, journalists and everybody else should not be afraid to be proved wrong, to learn and to improve. Admitting we are mistaken is not a demonstration of weakness, but of strength. After all, failure to concede we have been proven wrong does not hide the fact that we have.

Orwell was a fierce opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms and it stands to reason that he would oppose any attempt to shut down debate. He believed in “the power of facing unpleasant facts.” In other words, he wasn’t inhibited by political tribalism and could see things for what they were. If something was wrong, he would say so, regardless of who was responsible. This was a man accustomed to overcoming ingrained prejudice, having spent much time ‘unlearning’ some of the views his upbringing had instilled in him in relation to, among other things, the working class.

We can take much from his example. As the United Kingdom faces up to the reality of Brexit, arguably its biggest challenge since the time of Orwell, a political climate which is as inclusive as possible can only be beneficial. Party rivalry will rightly always exist and we can’t all be friends, but the right to air these differences in a civilised and respectful way must be preserved.

It is interesting and rather apt that over the years both the right and left have made attempts to claim Orwell as one of their own. Regardless of where he would have sat on today’s political spectrum, we can all learn from his honesty and unflinching commitment to democracy and liberty.

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In The Spotlight: Chas Newkey-Burden

Author of 29 books and counting, Chas Newkey-Burden is a Windsor-based journalist regularly published in the Guardian, Telegraph and Independent to name a few.

Writing on various topics including pop culture, football and politics; Chas is an established name in the world of journalism. Much of his recent work has focused on animal rights issues, particularly animal agriculture.

We caught up with Chas to discuss his career, as well as the direction his writing is currently taking.

You’ve interviewed some big names during your career, who has been a favourite for you?

Ricky Gervais really surprised me. I’d always been a fan of The Office and Extras but I wondered whether I’d like him in person because he sometimes seemed a prat in TV interviews. But he was lovely: far more sensitive and vulnerable than I expected. He was also painfully self-aware. There was a surreal moment when he quoted a line from The Office but got it slightly wrong. Forgetting who I was with, I corrected him. Then we both burst out laughing.

You’re an established name in the world of journalism now, but what first got you into writing?

Writing was one of the few things I enjoyed at school (along with running, football and being cheeky). As a teenager, my mind was blown by the fact that you can use a pen to hold the powerful to account and to expose wickedness. I started off writing about miscarriages of justice for student magazines and political papers. I also wrote for football fanzines. Then I took my cuttings around mainstream magazines and asked if I could write for them too.

Recently a lot of your focus seems to have been on animal rights; is this something that’s always been important to you?

Well, it was a big part of my childhood in the 1980s. I went vegetarian at 11 and became an animal rights activist. I handed out leaflets about vivisection and hunting, wore the badges, went to all the rallies.

I actually sort of lost my way with all of that for a while, but then a few years ago a family member died. It was an awful time but among all the grief I seemed to find myself again in so many ways. As part of that, it was such a joy to reconnect to my passion for animal welfare.

You’ve written articles on a number of issues within industry but is there any one in particular which you feel needs more exposure than it currently tends to receive?

Yes, dairy is always an issue I am keen to discuss and write about. For me it’s the cruellest of all animal abuse industries – it’s absolutely wicked. My article about dairy for The Guardian is my favourite thing I’ve written.

Dairy is scary

Chas Newkey-Burden: Dairy is scary.

Have you found the feedback to animal rights related articles different in any way to that of previous work?

It reminds me of the feedback I got when I used to write about the Middle East conflict: people either loved or hated what I wrote. When I wrote that article about the dairy industry earlier this year I got so many abusive and menacing messages from farmers. That’s to be expected when you put a clear mirror up to people who are behaving indefensibly. But I also got messages from tonnes of people saying they had decided to go vegan after reading my article. Someone even wrote an article in The Guardian saying that. What could be better?

What do you hope to achieve by writing animal rights related articles?

There’s that famous saying: if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. My aim is to give the slaughterhouses glass walls for 900 words. I also want to write articles which amplify and bolster people who are doing great work for animals, like the Save movement.

Do you think it’s important that journalists remain completely neutral when reporting the news, or is it healthy to let a bias or opinion dictate how a story is presented?

News stories should be written neutrally, but opinion pieces are obviously different.

How do you define your lifestyle? Are you vegetarian? Vegan? Or do you tend to steer away from labels?

I do steer away from labels, partly because I’m uneasy with identity politics in general and partly because even something as seemingly simple to define as veganism is the subject of fierce debate. That said, ‘vegan’ is a good enough description of how I roll.

Chas Newkey-Burden

Finally, given what you’ve learnt over the years, what would your advice be to anybody that wanted to get into writing professionally?

What you read will really rub off onto your own writing, so read as much good writing as possible and as little poor writing as possible. Drill it into your skull that long, pretentious words are generally the mark of an amateur. Be bright, witty and persistent. Don’t expect to make much money out of it but do expect to have some brilliant times.

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Be sure to follow Chas on twitter: @allthatchas

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