Orwell vs. Huxley

Misinformation vs Self-Imposed Blinkers

Jeanna De Waal and Jamie Horton in 'Orwell in America' at 59E59 Theaters (source: www.stagebuddy.com)

We saw Orwell in America at the 59th Street Theaters in New York some time back. Orwell actually never came to America, so this is a hypothetical interaction between Orwell and the US, and was fascinating on so many levels.


But it leads you to wonder, also considering that (Aldous) Huxley had briefly been Orwell’s tutor at Eton, as to who was more accurate as a prognosticator. Were the stark warnings embedded in 1984 more accurate than the chilling vision of Brave New World? Would we be oppressed into servitude or sedated into servility?


Neil Postman has written a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He suggests Huxley was the more prophetic. Building on Postman’s points below:


Huxley wrote to Orwell, congratulating him on 1984, though in the midst of the praise did say he thought those in power would take the Brave New World route, because it is more efficient than tyrannical rule, subjugation and the trappings of the police state.


Looking around the globe today, though, we may wonder, if that is really so, then why doesn’t every autocracy follow that route?


Well, because for all its efficiency, doing so does require a talent for mass communication; it does take a modicum of wit to be engagingly witless (being asinine requires no such gift).


So, taking a cue from Postman (and paraphrasing):

  • Orwell feared people would censor our books.

  • Huxley felt there would be no reason to ban books, as there would be no one left who would want to read one (or would understand it fully if they did).


  • Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.

  • Huxley feared those who would give us so much we’d be numbed into passivity and inaction and distracted by our own rampant egotism.


  • Orwell feared the truth would be kept from us.

  • Huxley feared the truth would be drowned and camouflaged in a flood of banality and a sea of irrelevance.


  • Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.

  • Huxley feared we’d become a trivial culture, endlessly preoccupied, failing to even consider the test Arnold Toynbee set for civilization: “The intelligent use of leisure.”


  • Orwell worried about our infinite capacity to be controlled, manipulated and (mis)led.

  • Huxley thought all the civil libertarians on the look-out for tyranny failed to take into account our almost insatiable capacity for distraction.


  • Orwell thought we’d be controlled by having pain inflicted.

  • Huxley feared we’d be controlled by being constantly offered pre-packaged pleasure.


  • In short, Orwell thought what we hate will destroy us.

  • In short, Huxley feared what we get addicted to and compulsively “desire”, will enslave us.

The world vacillates between 1984 and Brave New World, and perhaps we need a bit more of a creative world, enriched by snatches of Plato’s Republic, the Analects of Confucius, Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and possibly Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, among other treasures that variously take us back to Huxley’s brilliantly poetic insight where he speaks of

…that inward fire, whose small precarious flame, kindled or quenched, creates the noble or ignoble men we are, the worlds we live in, and the very fate, our bright or muddy star.”

Our personal leadership, our willingness to think and feel, to take initiative and collaborate, are all part of that crucial kindling.


And to give Orwell the last word, we must also remember that in certain times in history and life, speaking the truth can itself be a revolutionary act. Perhaps we are all called to that revolution.

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