As I Please
Tribune, 8 December 1944
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,
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:
LIVE THE IRISH!
first American soldier to kill a Jap was Mike Murphy.
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?
Answer to last week’s problem. The three errors are:
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law