The JSA is a national organization of high-school students, supported by adults in education. Inevitably, this means that it leans to the political Left. Indeed, when I began my speech, I asked by show of hands, how many people had had a negative reaction (anger, concern, unhappiness etc.) when Trump won the presidential election. Hundreds of hands went up. Then I asked for those who reacted positively to Trump’s election to put up their hands. The number of brave souls who raised their arms was in the single digits.
There is a strain in Leftist politics today that believes that the “political other” (to many personified by Trump) tends to the “fascist” or tyrannical. This is why sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spiked after his election: progressive Americans wanted to see “what happens next” after a country begins its turn to the dark side.
My speech was about the nature of tyranny – and about Orwell. Specifically, I wanted my audience to understand exactly what it was Orwell had been telling us to watch out for – because it isn’t what most of the folks on the American left today think it is.
Orwell knew – and even said as much in his famous book 1984 – that the real tyranny is not fascism but “orthodoxy”, which he defined as “not thinking, not needing to think”.
In other words, Orwell knew that it isn’t what you believe that makes you dangerous, it’s how you believe it.
It’s the certainty in your own rightness and or moral superiority that enables you to “otherize” your political opponents – to see them as so fundamentally other than yourself, in moral worth, intelligence, or goodness of intent, for example, that you can reject a priori their objections to your view of the world.
This is dangerous because it makes your beliefs immune to the data – the data of human experience – that are the only thing that could falsify or improve them. I put it this way: “we otherize to immunize” and what we immunize is our worldview against being proved to be incomplete at best or false at worst.
In speaking to the JSA, I contrasted science - which advances toward truth by knowing that it does not have the truth and therefore looking for the evidence that falsifies its prevailing paradigm - with scientism, which takes the current best understanding as fixed and immutable, and justifies rejection of all countervailing data. We do politics more like scientism than science in that most of us are trying to reinforce or prove our own rightness by making the other guy wrong. We are almost driven by confirmation bias and maintaining our standing among those we perceive to be like ourselves.
Orwell’s career was spent trying to warn the ages of exactly this error. The danger is not in the political philosophy: it’s in the epistemology.
I invited the group of 300 or so who were listening to me to consider that they had a problem. From the initial show of hands, hundreds of them had wanted Clinton to win, and only eight or nine had wanted Trump to win. The danger for JSA is either that it is a monoculture, which makes it all too easy to “otherize” those who don’t think like the overwhelming majority of the group, or that in fact there were many more Trump supporters in the room than admitted their political beliefs, but they were too scared to identify themselves, in which case the organization was already exhibiting the signs of tyranny in Orwell’s sense.
I suggested that if Orwell had been on Clinton’s campaign team, she’d never have used the word “Deplorables”, which was a one-term “otherization” whammy (and the very opposite of effective political persuasion). It told millions of people that not only would a Clinton government be politically disagreeable but also that it would not even consider their interests because their moral basis was unacceptable. In a sense then, the election of Trump was just the first result of an Orwellian “orthodoxy” taking hold. And, per Orwell, this is the slippery slope to political violence, which has already begun in the USA.
If that seemed to far-fetched, I told them, they should consider that in our country already:
People are already attacking free speech in the name of giving everyone a voice; they are privileging the views of people in certain groups in the name of giving all groups a voice, and worst of all, they are equating speech with violence to justify violence against those who speak.
The people in the room knew that the part of the political spectrum to which they were most sympathetic was also the most responsible for those Orwellian contradictions. Because I described it accurately, it wasn’t necessary to name the perpetrators and so my message wasn’t delivered as an accusation or an admonition. It was offered as a positive acknowledgement of the peaceful and egalitarian intentions of my progressive friends and as an insight to help them in building the world they want to see.
I reminded them, too, that Orwell was a self-declared international socialist, and yet he took more issue with the arrogance of his friends on the Left than with the politics of his opponents on the right.
My talk hit home. And it was a truly humanitarian and liberal message that changed the life of the young “dyed-in-the-wool Democrat” who thanked me afterward for changing his life by showing him just how he was “otherizing” his opponents and how dangerous that can be.