I’ve been reading a lot of George Orwell lately.
As a young man I read him voraciously, but in recent years I have left him to gather dust on my bookshelves. Then I picked up David Lebedoff’s fascinating dual biography of Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, The Same Man, and I was inspired to start re-reading him (Orwell, that is. The joys of reading Evelyn Waugh continue to elude me).
Orwell was an unbeliever, but he hated moral relativism. He believed with all his heart, brain, and soul that there were such things as moral right and moral wrong, and that these were not subject to changes in fashion. To him, moral relativism was, in fact, the gravest of sins.
He famously opposed totalitarianism vigorously, believing to his core that individual freedom mattered more than anything else on earth and reliance on tradition was the best way to maintain it. As Lebedoff writes in The Same Man, “[Orwell’s] most fundamental concern was that the Modern Age would strip human beings of their humanity. He felt that man does not live by bread alone, and that the Modern Age would provide us exclusively with bread. And circuses.”
And Orwell didn’t just write about these things. They cost him dearly. He embraced socialism, adopted an ascetic lifestyle in solidarity with the poor, lived with the homeless (or “tramps” as they were called in his day), fought against fascism in Spain (and nearly died), and was appalled by the march of the incipient authoritarianism of “the new class” in post-war Britain. He died young of tuberculosis, but also worn out from all the fighting. He was only 46, but he looked much older.
But Orwell saw what the future – our time – would bring, and dedicated his life to warning us against what was coming: a world of material wealth but few values, an existence without tradition or community or common purpose, where lives are measured in dollars, not sense. Orwell explains why, despite prosperity, so many people today feel that our society is headed in the wrong direction.
I just read his 1940 essay “Charles Dickens,” published in his book, Inside the Whale and Other Essays. In it, Orwell wards off attempts by others to domesticate Dickens’ work by reducing his stories to simple morality tales. No, argues Orwell, Dickens was a radical, exposing the underbelly of Victorian English society and condemning the self-centeredness of the middle and upper classes. Dickens was a fighter, Orwell contends, and we must not leech his work of their fighting spirit.
Toward the end of his passionate engagement with Dickens’ work, he writes about other authors who inspire him to fight against moral relativism of his day:
“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it.”
Then, imagining the face of Charles Dickens, he continues:
“It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high color. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry – in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
“Generously angry” is such a classically Orwellian phrase. And while he uses it of Charles Dickens, I think he is inadvertently describing himself too. Orwell fought generously, out in the open, too. It is also a sad prophecy by Orwell since the smelly little orthodoxies have now become even more malodorous these days.
The difficult task is summoning the right amount of anger with the right amount of generosity of spirit. Like Orwell and Dickens, we should hang onto our anger at failures and misdemeanors in public life. It’s right to be angry at the horrors of Brexit and Trumpism, and the disaster of a poorly managed pandemic. We must remain angry at both Netanyahu and Hamas, at the military dictators in Myanmar, at black deaths in custody, at religious nationalism, at family separations at the border, at racism and sexism, the list goes on.
To become blasé about such things is to slide into the kind of moral relativism Orwell railed against. If only he could see us passionately tweeting our hot takes on the latest ep of The Bachelor or Love Island while remaining oblivious to the failure of the Paris Agreement, or ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and China, or the ways big business mines our personal private data without our consent.
But we must temper that anger with a generosity that tries to find ways to make things better for all of us, including the objects of our criticism. There have been laudable calls recently for greater civility in public discourse, but George Orwell has taught me that we do well to lose neither the anger nor the ability to channel that anger generously for the sake of the greater good.
I confess I have not always been very good at the latter. I have been too readily tempted to treat those who disagree with me ungenerously, even contemptuously. But I’m trying to be more Orwellian about this. More Christlike, even (although aiming at Orwell seems a bit more gettable than being like Christ). In this, I’m inspired by another writer, my friend the singer-songwriter, Justin McRoberts. Justin has a razor-wit and a way with words, which means he’s good with a snarky slur or a judicious putdown. But he’s also a deeply spiritual man, a follower of Christ, who taught us to love our enemies. Recently, Justin wrote the following and I’ve taken it to heart. I had his quote pinned next to my desk for a while. It guides me toward a more generous anger.
“I’ve spent enough time directing snark and insults at others to know that it just isn’t worth the zing or the ‘points’ I win among people who already agree with me. Treating people that way takes too much of a toll, not only on any sense of community and connectedness, but on my own psychology over time. In short, each time I choose to take a shot at someone, the connections I work to create and care for are diminished (and so am I). The way I see things and ideas are not valuable because of their rightness or even their beauty; ideas have value if they enrich and bless human lives. Treating people disrespectfully (especially when I have an ideological difference with them) undermines the point of conversation and argument.”