Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Inadmissible facts

Yesterday I came across this: "Those who 'abjure' violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf." I searched for the context and found it. It is from an 1945 essay by George Orwell: "Notes on Nationalism." He is using "nationalism" as meaning "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." That attitude is applicable to any allegiance, not just to a nation-state. From that essay:
...[I]t is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion — that is, the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware — will not allow him to do so. .... He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack — all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognized for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. ....

In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one's own mind. ....

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. .... Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of western countries. ....

Let a certain note be struck, let this or that corn be trodden on...and the most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan, anxious only to "score" over his adversary and indifferent as to how many lies he tells or how many logical errors he commits in doing so. .... One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied. ....

.... There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when "our" side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function. ....

I think one must engage in politics — using the word in a wide sense — and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognize that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. .... [Y]ou can at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. .... [more]
The context of that quotation I found yesterday:
If one harbours anywhere in one's mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:
BRITISH TORY: Britain will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.
COMMUNIST. If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.
IRISH NATIONALIST. Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.
TROTSKYIST. The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.
PACIFIST. Those who "abjure" violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.