Truth for Truth’s Sake

Sometimes, I ask myself this question: What would George Orwell say if he were alive today? I mean, what would he say other than “Man, I’m really old, which is surprising, not in the least because of that whole tuberculosis thing.” At any rate, I’m sure he’d have some other interesting insights. As John Lennon once said, these are strange days, indeed.

I’m not the only one thinking about Orwell. As you might have noticed, folks are throwing around the word “Orwellian” like they’re earning double royalties on its usage. Saying “Orwellian,” in fact, has become shorthand for most of the ideas Orwell cared about. This means, by the way, that using the word “Orwellian” is also Orwellian, which in turn means it’s a phenomenon that may eventually collapse in on itself in a super-massive black hole of Orwellness. (Don’t bother looking that word up. It isn’t a real one. Not yet.)

These days, there’s a lot of specific talk about Orwell’s opus Nineteen Eighty-Four, and rightly so. But there’s more to Orwell than Winston Smith, INGSOC, bland coveralls, and Big Brother. Orwell was passionate about intellectual laziness, especially when it came to language, and he was most concerned about what could happen as a result.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell pinpoints one of his issues with the state of English: “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” If Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a dystopian endpoint, a totalitarian society, a “boot stamping on a human face — forever,” Animal Farm is about how it all begins, how the animals of Manor Farm give away their power.  

The working animals of Manor Farm surrender their freedom in many ways, but their inability to read is one of the main reasons the bossy pigs are able to take control of them. It’s also why they fail to notice when the totalitarian pigs amend the great commandment “All animals are equal” to include the proviso “But some are more equal than others.” Only Benjamin the donkey, who can read as well as the pigs, understands what is happening, and he doesn’t care until it’s too late.

George Orwell (née Eric Blair) was a socialist, ideologically to the left even of many who call themselves liberal today, but he had occasional gripes with people of all political ideologies, and during his career, he got around to criticizing all of them. That’s probably why he’s still claimed by the right and the left, depending on the day of the week. I used to think he’d find that unsurprising, but now I’m not so sure. 

Still, people are talking about Orwell, and that’s mostly a good thing. Invoking his name can be an ominous way to enter a conversation at a party, and calling something or someone “Orwellian” can be a cool way of sounding intelligent and insightful while avoiding any meaningful description of the person or thing being criticized.

I’m more concerned here with truth, specifically folks bearing responsibility for claiming to bear the truth. I don’t mean the grand pronouncements like “There is life after death” and “Yes, God exists, and he supports my deep need for a large house with a hot tub.” No, I’m referring to things like “How many sources can I find that repeat the same story?” or “Is that survey legitimate?” or “How do I know that person actually said that?”

When I teach argument, I tell my students that the most difficult time to be a useful skeptic is when you agree with someone’s position. This usually bears out when we discover how much higher our evidential standards are when it comes to other people’s arguments than with our own. They need to provide evidence, we say–what I’m saying is just common sense. Most of us know about confirmation bias, but the problem is we can both be aware of it and fall prey to it. It’s a virus that blinds a host to its existence.

The ever-evolving modern approach seems to be to share information as quickly as possible, and it’s based on the assumption that the things you hear and read are fake, but the ones I see and hear are true. Your sources are suspect, while mine are sacrosanct. I can speak in generalities, but you’re going to need to provide stats, graphs, birth certificates, and family photos, all in triplicate, thanks.

This is only made worse by the prevalence of social media, which serves as a rolling feed of info-like nuggets. Think of the Star Wars beginning crawl, only with clickbait headlines. This tendency to over-share also has its origin, I think, in our human desire to be seen as correct and to be able to gloat about it. After all, we’re required to say something, right? It’s not like we can just settle for “That seems too good to be true” or, better yet, decide to just say nothing at all. Or can we?

Consider this exchange from The Simpsons, where Lisa repeats a bit of sage advice in front of her dad, Homer.

Lisa: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Homer’s Brain: “What does that mean? Better say something or they’ll think you’re stupid.”

Homer: “Takes one to know one!”

Homer’s a funny guy, and unless you’re Ned Flanders, he might actually be a cool neighbor. As he so often does, though, he serves here as an example of what we shouldn’t aspire to be: the person who, at all costs, has to say something.

What would Orwell say about today’s world, then? Well, if he were here, he might point out that Big Brother is watching us just like he always has been. He might mention, as cultural critic Neil Postman famously wrote, that Big Brother’s having an easy time watching us because we’re giving him unfettered access to every centimeter of our lives. He’d probably remind us about the perils of the lazy use of language, too.

Orwell might also reiterate the idea that if a piece of information is important enough to put out in the world, it’s important enough to verify. By failing to do so, he’d say, we’re only contributing to that buzz of misinformation that grows louder with every passing day.

So let’s review. Imagine you’ve just read or heard something, and it has you fired up like a Baptist preacher in a lingerie shop. What do you do?

Assuming no one’s life is in danger, here are a few possibilities to consider:

If you don’t know whether what you’ve just read is true or not, don’t share it. If you think it might be true, don’t share it. If everyone you know says it’s true, but you haven’t verified it independently, don’t share it. And most of all, if it “feels” true, for the love of God, don’t share it. If you hold off sharing, the worst thing that can happen is it turns out to be true and you missed a scoop.

Still, at least you won’t be a Homer.