The Abuse of Language as Instrumental to the Abuse of Power

The term propaganda is sometimes brought up in casual conversation, however, many do not realize the potential power that propaganda can have. Merriam-Webster defines propaganda as "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person." When most people think of propaganda, they tend to think of the posters and songs created by or with the aid of a government during wartime, yet the truth of the matter is that propaganda has a much broader application. 

Working as a propagandist during World War II, Orwell experienced firsthand both the immense power and the dishonesty of propaganda. Propagandists use a variety of persuasive techniques to influence opinions and avoid the truth.   Often these techniques rely on some element of censorship or manipulation, either omitting significant information or distorting it.  Many types of governments make use of propaganda, not only totalitarian ones. Consider, for instance, the arguments that led many United States citizens to go along with the idea of invading Iraq after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.  Propaganda serves the positive task of uniting the people, sometimes at the cost of misleading them.  Orwell takes a firm stance on the harmfulness of propaganda in Animal Farm while acknowledging its value for rallying a mistreated and disillusioned populace.

Old Major uses some techniques of propaganda in his speech to the animals - he identifies humans as the enemy, and attempts to unite them all against this common enemy. He promises that their lives will be better and easier if they do what he suggests and overthrow the humans. He also teaches them a simple, easy-to-remember song, Beasts of England, to inspire them with his ideas. Although he genuinely believes that he is acting in the animals' best interests and is not trying to deceive them, this is all still propaganda.

One of Orwell’s central concerns is the way in which language can be manipulated as an instrument of control. In Animal Farm, the pigs gradually twist and distort a rhetoric of socialist revolution to justify their behavior and to keep the other animals in the dark. The animals heartily embrace Major’s visionary ideal of socialism, but after Major dies, the pigs gradually twist the meaning of his words.  The way in which the animals' original “Seven Commandments” are reduced to one commandment is an example of language manipulation.  First, the various commandments are subtly altered to reflect (and uphold) the gradual corruption occurring among the pig leaders. For example, the fourth commandment, “No animal shall sleep in a bed” has been changed to “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets” in chapter six. As Muriel and Clover are discussing this point, Squealer passes by and is quick to explain that the commandment always ruled against the human invention of sheets. The rest of Squealer's speech about pigs sleeping in beds is propaganda clearly designed to shame any of the animals who might wish to argue against the pigs doing so.  As a result, the other animals seem unable to oppose the pigs without also opposing the ideals of the Rebellion.

Squealer represents a totalitarian government’s propaganda machine. Eloquent to a fault, he can make the animals believe almost anything. This fact is especially clear in Squealer’s interactions with Clover and Muriel. Each time Clover suspects that the Seven Commandments have been changed, Squealer manages to convince her that she is wrong.  Many examples of Squealer's propagandizing can be found throughout the book.  For example, Squealer uses several clever techniques to persuade the other animals to accept that the pigs will keep all the apples and milk. He tells the animals that he hopes they don't think the pigs are doing this to be selfish - implying that if they do think this, they are being foolish.  Snowball also persuasively explains away why Napoleon would preside over the pig committee, why Napoleon had appeared to oppose Snowball's windmill plan, and so on.  He plays off the animals' fears by telling them that if the pigs fail in their duty, Jones will come back.  All the animals are very afraid of Jones coming back, and so if the only way to avoid it is to give the pigs all the milk and apples etc., they will agree to this. 

Squealer persuades the animals that their memories are at fault when they think they remember passing a resolution against money and trade at the first meeting after the Rebellion. He suggests that this is imaginary and probably due to lies spread by Snowball. He also asks them how they can be sure they did not dream it, since there is no record in writing and no proof of such a resolution. This causes the other animals to doubt themselves, thus giving the pigs more power.

If you look at other examples of commandments being reworded, such as the sixth commandment becoming “No animal shall kill any other animal without cause” in chapter eight and the fifth commandment being altered to “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess” in the same chapter, one begins to see the pattern.  After the executions, Napoleon abolishes the singing of “Beasts of England” in favor of a new anthem, the lyrics of which contain a promise never to harm Animal Farm. In this propagandist maneuver, Napoleon replaces the revolutionary spirit of “Beasts of England” with the exact opposite, a promise not to rebel.

In addition to being a source of manipulation, propaganda is an agent of fear and terror.  Orwell demonstrates this quite clearly with Napoleon’s vilification of Snowball and his assurances that Snowball could attack the animals at any minute. He uses similar fear tactics regarding Frederick and Pilkington. The most egregious example of propaganda in the novel is the maxim that replaces the Seven Commandments.  After Squealer’s repeated reconfigurations of the Seven Commandments in order to decriminalize the pigs’ treacheries, the main principle of the farm can be openly stated as “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This outrageous abuse of the word “equal” and of the ideal of equality in general typifies the pigs’ method, which becomes increasingly audacious as the novel progresses. The idea of “more equal” is mathematically improbable and a nonsensical manipulation of language, but by this time, the animals are too brainwashed to notice.

In Chapter IX, Orwell demonstrates the positive value of propaganda. By this point, the animals are so downtrodden that they are desperate for something in which to believe. (Note the irony, though: it is Napoleon who has robbed them of their belief in the original version of Animalism.) The falsely optimistic statistics, the songs, and especially the Spontaneous Demonstrations give the animals something to live for. This chapter is an exception in terms of portraying propaganda in a positive light. For the majority of Animal Farm, Orwell skewers propaganda and exposes its nature as deception.

Orwell’s sophisticated exposure of this abuse of language remains one of the most compelling and enduring features of Animal Farm, worthy of close study even after we have decoded its allegorical characters and events.