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Every act of communication - or non-communication - is a choice of influence. The essayist is confronted with a peculiar difficulty: he will have time to consider how he wants to influence others - which means, how he wants to change them. If he is a conscientious person, he will wonder in what sense this change helps or hurts them or those around them, and the surrounding culture in which they live. Now my principal goal here is to get you, my reader, to read and deeply consider the points in a little-known but very important essay of George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism.*

So a good start for this essay, then, is for me to state plainly that I consider it quite possible that you will become a more melancholy and disillusioned person after reading and assimilating what is in the essay by George Orwell. I nevertheless believe that his essay can transform a person into a more interesting and curious thinker, a better citizen, and a person who does less damage to society. But not having today a vision of ultimate good either for you, my reader, or for society as a whole, I admit I cannot know in the most profound sense either the good or the ill that I do by pushing you to get exposed to Orwell's outline for the struggle for intellectual honesty.

It is a false conceit of the pacifist that he does no harm if he distorts reality.

Having now acknowledged my ignorance about ultimate good, I should like to point out what I take to be one of the great damaging assumptions of our age: that if a person handles his monetary commitments scrupulously, does not lie about whom he is not sleeping with, and obeys the commands of those society calls his superiors, he is an honest person. What is generally forgotten is that such habits do not penetrate to the level of intellectual honesty which I aim to discuss here. This honesty is not the same as meaning well or restraining one's rapaciousness. It has little directly to do with being a saint or loving others. Intellectual honesty is a constant struggle, and people trained for years to obey its strictures still frequently fail when they adopt a cause or a way of looking at life, or are propelled into a defensive state of mind. To avoid being consciously dishonest is one thing; more pernicious still, however, is unconscious dishonesty, in which one is trapped by habit into dishonest patterns of thinking and communicating.

The first step in breaking out is finding the courage to accept, without resentment, that your most cherished beliefs may come crashing down by admitting unpleasant facts or by following carefully a line of reasoning. Indeed, what do YOU want from your philosophy? Do you want merely to find a convenient rationalization for how you live, a way that brings solace from life's withering and bewildering onslaught of cruelties? If so, your fantasy life will provide you with a much better home than anything I can offer you through intellectual honesty. But if you really do want to know what is true - no matter how much it hurts - then this essay by Orwell will help provide you a way to start to reform your habits of mind, as it helped me. Orwell will show you inside yourself the fanatic's habits of mind and thereby break your complacency about yourself. Do not despair, however! By maintaining a deep and wide-ranging love of truth, it is indeed possible to take pride in yourself without attaching to illusions or dogmas. Your humility will alienate you from those who mistake lack of enthusiasm towards what is shallow or false for lack of self-confidence or of joie-de-vivre. Indeed, you may even be thought stupid for your non-conformism. Certainly, in a society in which much of status depends on how much you fit in socially, Orwell's injunctions may help you become socially dysfunctional. I suggested to you a moment ago that intellectual honesty can be disruptive to the personality; surely you don't suppose it socially profitable!

Orwell's essay, however, is not just a shaking of respectability's complacency; it provides a level of detail which will allow you to catch yourself in some of the dishonesties which today infect nearly every person who talks publicly about public issues - thereby infecting also those who listen, watch, and read. When Orwell criticizes the pacifists who cannot admit how they themselves are being protected by the threat of violence, he does not ally himself with militarists. Instead, this is just one example of the habits of mind of a fanatic. It is a false conceit of the pacifist that he does no harm if he distorts reality. He damages others' ability to answer honestly the questions he raises by confusing them. In the long run, he may actually delay his own goals. If socialists had been more honest about the ugly things done in the name of socialism, perhaps we could now have a deeper discussion about how and to what extent a government should intervene in free markets. If free market fundamentalists had acknowledged how free markets can go wrong, how they have only functioned in certain social and legal contexts, and how often supposedly free markets are very much not free, we might not have had the deregulation leading to the current too-big-to-fail debacle. If those who glory in war would admit how even success is ugly and destructive, breaking hearts and lives and hope, often seeding hatreds that go on for generations, war might be less appealing. None of the wars of religion could have been justified as they were without intellectual dishonesty, whether the dishonesty was conscious or not. It is not going too far to say that intellectual dishonesty is the world's most dangerous pandemic. We may well suppose that this pandemic has a fair chance of wrecking our civilization in the end or leading it into stagnant cultural infertility. Every conscientious world citizen should struggle to fight off the infection.

* Footnote:

Those who have read and thought about "Notes on Nationalism" may also enjoy the related, important, and better-known Orwellian essay, Politics and the English Language.


Original posting by manydimensional on Mar 29, 2010 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=29

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