Recently I was asked to write a piece for Island that connects freedom of speech issues between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the likes of George Christensen and Cory Bernardi and their blatherings about the Safe Schools Coalition. This is something of a rehearsal for that piece, which will probably be longer and hopefully published later in the year.
Orwell finished writing Animal Farm in early 1944, with World War Two still about fifteen months away from its European conclusion. In my opinion it is the finest thing he published, certainly the best of his fiction; it achieves that magic quality that should arguably govern all good fiction, that of simple complexity. He had difficulty getting it published; his contracted publisher at the time, Victor Gollancz, turned it down, as did TS Eliot at Faber. Finally Secker & Warburg came to the party in August 1945, after Victory in Europe (and at about the time when the War was also coming to an end in the Pacific). The main reason for Orwell’s difficulty in finding a publisher was the book’s depiction of Soviet leaders as pigs; after the Yalta Conference, Stalin worked with the West to defeat Germany and it wasn’t considered cricket to then step on his toes by publishing something he would almost certainly regard as offensive. (When it was finally published it was banned in Russia for forty years.)
It is the use of language as a tool for oppression in the novel that interests me here. Squealer is its agent of propaganda–a pig who is very persuasive and has the job of selling leader Napoleon’s ideas to the rest of the animals, who for the most part lack sufficient education to really know what’s going on. There are several excellent examples in this but the famous one is the replacement of the original Seven Commandments of Animalism at the end of the book with one final absurd statement: ‘All Animals are Equal, But Some are More Equal Than Others.’ In an afterword included with a recent reprinting, Orwell states that if liberty has any meaning at all, it is in the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Which is a noble sentiment and one with which I tend to concur. It makes a discussion of free speech difficult, however, and in our current age of terrorism (and recent attempts to change the Racial Discrimination Act) the issue is as complex and compelling as ever.
One of my favourite hobbies is getting blocked from Facebook pages. Facebook is clearly a very open church (pun intended), until you start telling people what they don’t want to hear. My most recent victory came in a visit I paid to the Facebook page of a group called Family Voice Australia, which is described as “a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom”. (Not, apparently, freedom of speech–of course.) Not surprisingly this page is used to take regular aim at issues like marriage equality and the Safe Schools Coalition–things, in other words, that are contrary to narrow white middle-class fundamentalist notions of family.
I was blocked by them after I commented on a story they posted in which Queensland LNP MHR George Christensen attacked the Safe Schools Coalition using parliamentary privilege, as he has done several times. What caught my particular attention was his use of the word ‘grooming’ to describe how the Safe Schools program (intended to provide support in schools for students who may be LBGTI) could be seen as regarding students the way a paedophile regards potential victims. A truly moronic, uninformed, appalling thing to say. My comment in response asked them to consider how much ‘grooming’ had taken place in the Catholic and Anglican churches over the last few decades, and then to find a dictionary and look up ‘hypocrisy’. I took a screen-shot, knowing the comments wouldn’t remain for long–and they didn’t. Less than a couple of hours.
I was further amused a few weeks later when Senator Cory Bernardi derided a group of protesters who, angry with his opposition to Safe Schools, stormed into his Adelaide office and trashed it. Lefty totalitarians, he called them, a ridiculous phrase both historically ignorant and semantically contradictory. (In that, to very briefly explain, totalitarian regimes have always emerged from the Far Right.)
The agenda of our current Coalition Government’s conservative rump is clearly ideological; they are clearly offend by anything which deviates from clearly defined parameters of ‘normal’. Invoking religion to support such ideals is nothing new but the level of bigotry and ignorance demonstrated by fundamentalist groups such as Family Voice Australia should be alarming–indeed, for breathtaking hypocrisy if nothing else.
However, and here’s the difficult bit: they should be welcome to their views. Orwell’s definition of liberty allows them to be welcome. At the same time, his definition allows me (and anyone else of a similar mindset) to remind people how ugly and ill-informed those views are, and how detrimental the likes of Bernardi and Family Voice are to many of the core values of faith–compassion, inclusion, unconditional love.
Orwell had a somewhat contradictory attitude to religion; he was mostly agnostic, yet believed that we should behave like God’s children. He insisted in his will on burial in a church graveyard (which he was, after extended and delicate negotiations). I don’t know what he would make of our conservative politicians or their fundamentalist cheer squads.
I like to think, however, that he would have been reluctant to join them for a game of cards.