The Disregard of an Opponent’s Motives

George Orwell

Tribune, 8 December 1944

[“As I Please” was a regular column in Tribune from December 1943 to February 1945 and again from November 1946 to April 1947.  This article is the first part of Orwell’s 8 December 1944 “As I Please” column.  The present title was not Orwell’s, but was rather applied to the article by Alexander S. Peak.]

FOR years past I have been an industrious collector of pamphlets, and a fairly steady reader of political literature of all kinds.  The thing that strikes me more and more—and it strikes a lot of other people, too—is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time.  I don’t mean merely that controversies are acrimonious.  They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects.  I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point.  When I look through my collection of pamphlets—Conservative, Communist, Catholic, Trotskyist, Pacifist, Anarchist or what-have-you—it seems to me that almost all of them have the same mental atmosphere, though the points of emphasis vary.  Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a ‘case’ with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don’t want to see them.  The same propaganda tricks are to be found almost everywhere.  It would take many pages of this paper merely to classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit—disregard of an opponent’s motives.  The key-word here is ‘objectively’.

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance.  Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant.  I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once.  The same argument is applied to Trotskyism.  Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again.  To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it.  If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions.  For there are occasions when even the most misguided person can see the results of what he is doing.  Here is a crude but quite possible illustration.  A pacifist is working in some job which gives him access to important military information, and is approached by a German secret agent.  In those circumstances his subjective feelings do make a difference.  If he is subjectively pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he isn’t, he won’t.  And situations essentially similar though less dramatic are constantly arising.

In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly pro-Nazi, and extremist left-wing parties will inevitably contain Fascist spies.  The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult.  The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind.  To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable.  It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.  It is this habit of mind, among other things, that has made political prediction in our time so remarkably unsuccessful.

Copyright © The Estate of Eric Blair