Jacob Wrestling the Irrational Animal: George Orwell on Critical Thinking

In London’s Tribune, George Orwell wrote an essay (“In Front of Your Nose,” March 22, 1946) with a number of great observations on critical thinking. The first is this:  

In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.

It’s a funny line, and it rests on a powerful syllogism:

  • Our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason.
  • They rarely match reality.
  • Therefore, our conclusions rarely match reality.

And so Orwell also writes this:

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

What Orwell seems to be suggesting here is that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but the act of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. That’s the struggle: to never look away; to face the truth without the Oedipus-like plucking out of the eyes.

This is hard work; work most of us strenuously avoid:

[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

Orwell hones in on one method of lying to ourselves in particular: “the power of holding simultaneously two beliefs which cancel out.” Orwell called this “schitzophrenia;” today we call it cognitive dissonance (or, perhaps, splitting or dissociation). One example that Orwell offers is Great Britain’s control of Hong Kong, in which intelligent Britons believed that the loss of Hong Kong was inevitable even as they also tended to believe that more troops should be sent there:

For years before the war everyone with knowledge of Far Eastern conditions knew that our position in Hong Kong was untenable and that we should lose it as soon as a major war started. This knowledge, however, was intolerable, and government after government continued to cling to Hong Kong instead of giving it back to the Chinese. Fresh troops were even pushed into it, with the certainty that they would be uselessly taken prisoner, a few weeks before the Japanese attack began. The war came, and Hong Kong promptly fell — as everyone had known all along that it would do.

This example could be updated with Iraq. American liberals like to believe that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from there will most likely be absent serious consequences. American conservatives like to be believe that U.S. troops can stay indefinitely without serious consequences. But both of them are, in fact, cognitively dissonant.

Why?

Because liberals and conservatives agree on something which cancels their respective positions out: the Iraq War has strengthened Shia Iran, and Iraq, now dominated by Shias and not Sunnis (as under Saddam Hussein), must surely develop closer ties to Iran over the next decade.

What this means is that we cannot leave or stay in Iraq without entailing serious risks. We’re in a double-bind that neither liberals nor conservatives can admit because each side sees its own solutions to the dilemma through rose-colored glasses and catastrophizes the counter recommendations of its opponents. With regard to their own positions, both groups play Pollyanna to the other’s Cassandra. The truth, of course, is in the middle, obscured by reasoning that gives pleasure or scores political points against enemies (which also gives pleasure), and breeds cognitive dissonances.

In contrast with such ideological thinking, Orwell’s provocation is to try to bring cognitive dissonances into full consciousness. One way to do this is to keep a diary. Perhaps, were Orwell alive today, he might have recommended blogging:

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.

A critical thinking diary! What a brilliant concept! And very Freudian. Prior to thinking about this essay of Orwell’s, I never thought of him as Freudian. But what could be more Freudian than to keep a waking dream journal of your religious and political illusions so that, when you reread your journal at a later time, you can recognize your own foolishness and gain some knowledge about yourself? Orwell also takes aim at denial, which was also obviously a concern of Freud’s:

Closely allied to [schitzophrenia] is the power of ignoring facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later.

If, like me, you’re moved by Orwell’s lifelong war against lying—against culture smog—perhaps you’re also wondering, as I am, why getting at the objective truth of matters has never really gotten traction as a spiritual path. Maybe science plays this role for scientists, but it’s an elite path. If, however, a popular religion—a religion for the masses—ever forms around critical thinking as a spiritual discipline, George Orwell gets one of my votes for who should become the saints of that new religion (as does Freud, who I now see Orwell was clearly influenced by).

File:Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 061.jpg

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Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Delacroix’s depiction of Jacob wrestling the angel. And who are those Arab-looking figures in the lower right, and what are they moving away from?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Jacob Wrestling the Irrational Animal: George Orwell on Critical Thinking

  1. Pingback: Give George Orwell a Statue Near BBC Headquarters | Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Stephen Pinker Embraces Scientism | Prometheus Unbound

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