George Orwell, Class and Race in America

            A few weeks ago, I bought at a library book sale a copy of Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering. Lesser revisits some of her old literary favorites, reflecting on their appeal and how they have worn with her. One writer whom she still admires, but more guardedly than when she was an undergrad or graduate student, is George Orwell. I share some of Lesser’s enthusiasm for Orwell. I was impressed by the nuanced way she put this almost unimpeachable figure, this literary saint, into perspective, reminding me a little Orwell’s own reflections on Rudyard Kipling and the “penny dreadfuls” of his youth.    

            One of the Orwell passages that Lesser quotes with apparent approval is from The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell writes about social class in England.

“…to get outside the class-racket I have got to suppress not merely my private snobbishness, but most of my other tastes and prejudices as well. I have got to alter myself so completely that at the end I should hardly be recognizable as the same person.”

Orwell might be talking about attitudes towards race among white people in the US. Our attitude towards race, which comes down to a presumption of Caucasian superiority, is so deeply ingrained by history, culture, and education that it probably requires a transformation to overcome. I don’t take Orwell or Lesser to mean that it is not worth the effort to overcome race/class prejudice, but that people (liberals and progressives especially) may imagine that they have rid themselves of them while they have really only scratched the surface, merely redecorating when structural change is necessary. Orwell became a tramp and dishwasher (as recorded in Down and Out in Paris and London) as a form of penance for his own class privilege and possibly to help rid himself of class prejudice. His military service in the Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War may have had a similar motive. My own military service, my deployment to Iraq especially, gave me a sense of the kinship of all people, despite the fact that I saw the country as a combatant, and that I found much of Iraqi alien and even repellent.

            I was reminded of this feeling listening to a podcast featuring Harvard psychologist Donna Hicks.  Hicks’ main subject is dignity, a regard for the “inherent value and worth” of individuals, a form of regard that does not have to be earned, unlike respect, or trust, which must be earned and once forfeited are hard to regain. Hicks also argues that behavior can alter attitudes. By expressing ourselves and acting on the principle of universal dignity, an inner belief in dignity may begin to take hold.  The Black Lives Matter movement is an appeal to dignity, to the worthiness of all lives, even if we feel remote or even estranged from them, separated by race, class, culture, or nationality.

The idea of dignity is related to empathy, a subject on which I have posted in this blog following a workshop on strategic empathy and foreign policy that I attended in May. Dignity has the advantage over empathy in that it is not dependent on shared experience or even values. Dignity is a given. It may be that both ideas are valuable in the areas of human relations. An attention to dignity may enable us to uncover unexpected commonalities that can lead to empathy, trust, and respect, perhaps eventually overcoming the prejudices that we have been so carefully taught.

Coming: More on Dignity   


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