Both of these essays are concerned with the political elite's manipulation of its citizens. "Politics and the English Language " focuses on the misuse of words in order to make lies sound truthful, to disguise the real agenda of a government or a political party, and thus to deceive...
Both of these essays are concerned with the political elite's manipulation of its citizens. "Politics and the English Language" focuses on the misuse of words in order to make lies sound truthful, to disguise the real agenda of a government or a political party, and thus to deceive people. In "Shooting an Elephant," an ordinary British citizen, in this specific case Orwell himself, is placed in a situation where he is made to act against his will and his moral values as a result of his own country's imperialist policies and deceptions.
Orwell was not an anarchist, and throughout his career he typically characterized himself as one in favor of some sort of "democratic socialism." Yet in his writings he seemed to be critical of governments in general and of all political parties. For instance, before World War II, like most on the left, he was against the Chamberlain government and saw Chamberlain as a war-monger and not the appeaser history has come to see him as.
In spite of the brilliant analysis of colonialism in "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell overstates the case, appearing to see the purpose of imperialism primarily as a means for governments to manipulate their own people. In colonial Burma, Orwell says, the white man—himself in this case as a policeman urged on by a crowd of Burmans to kill an elephant—becomes a "hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib." Most people, however, would probably agree that this was merely a by-product of the system, and that the real purpose of colonialism, as bad as it was, was the exploitation of people and resources in underdeveloped countries. If anything, the main object was the enrichment of Britain at the expense of non-European peoples, though Orwell is right that in order to achieve this, the British people themselves had to be duped by the ruling class into a conformist and unquestioning role in the process.
In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell's critique of contemporary writing is valid in its way, and in our time we've seen the trends he describes in a continued and extended form, exacerbated by political correctness and by the dominance of social media. Catchphrases, sloganeering, imprecision, and an abbreviated style render much of our present-day language meaningless. Orwell is prescient in identifying factors in the political writing of the 1940's that may have led to this state of affairs. At the same time, however, much of his analysis seems an exaggeration. He claims the examples he cites are typical, and that "latinization" and over-complication are two of the principal trends of contemporary writing. But the prose of the previous century, during the Victorian period, was actually much more ornate than most twentieth-century writing. The most valid point Orwell makes concerns the euphemisms used in statements by governments, such as the term "population transfer" for what in reality was a form of mass exile and genocide in the Europe of his time.
In summary, both of these essays make important and valid observations about the behavior of governments and political elites. But both are colored by Orwell's typically skeptical and extreme condemnation of not only the ruling class of his own country, but of the business of politics in general. And yet, his writings are brilliant and are an indispensable guide to understanding his time, and by extension, our own.