Sex in 1984: Orwell and Catholicism
Having recently re-read one of the most insightful critiques of the socially destructive effect of mass pornography I have ever come across, I was struck by how the central message was actually present in George Orwell’s 1984. The article is titled “The Politics of Porn”, authored by Robert R. Reilly, and the important message to take away from it is summarized in the following lines:
No matter how democratic their institutions, morally enervated people cannot be free. And people who are enslaved to their passions inevitably become slaves to tyrants.
The mass production and consumption of pornography, Reilly argues, has “morally enervated” the American public and poses a serious threat to the true foundations of liberty – personal virtue.
Many liberals and libertarians may balk at the premise but as Reilly argues, this was the view of the American founders, for whom the classical republican ideals of civic virtue were just as important, if not more so, than the more recent innovations of classical liberalism.
Catholics have sometimes harshly criticized Orwell. Given his manifest hostility to the Catholic Church, defensiveness and counter-hostility is understandable and to a certain degree, warranted. But anyone seeking to defend the Catholic conception of virtue and sexuality would actually find in his work a sympathetic message, which in spite of itself ends up defending a similar view of the relationship between virtue and liberty, or perhaps more pointedly, vice and slavery.
The common thread among them is a view of human liberty in the positive sense. Whereas classical liberalism, following Hobbes, has a tendency to view liberty as the absence of impediments to free movement (the negative view), to find it in the silence of the law, or in a personal sphere defined by abstract rights, the positive view of liberty posits that it is also a state of mind. One may be free to do as one pleases, and easily become enslaved in their minds, hearts and souls to vice.
The positive libertarian par excellence was Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who also had much to say about the relationship between virtue and liberty. A typical statement on the subject is found in the Discourse on Political Economy, where he writes
There can be no patriotism without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without citizens; create citizens, and you have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves…
Rousseau goes on to argue that “[Tyrants] took as great pains to corrupt the morals of their slaves”, while just and wise rulers do the opposite. Perhaps Rousseau, and Orwell too, overstated the power that the state has to shape morality, but they were certainly onto something. One can hardly read Pope Leo XIII’s Libertas and fail to conclude that the state has some role to play in shaping the morality of citizens, if not to the extent Rousseau wished, to a far greater extent than exists today.
And it is in considering our modern situation that Orwell’s novel becomes the one that speaks to us most clearly, its warnings more pertinent and intimately felt. Those who have read the novel may be familiar with the various ways in which the ubiquitous and all-powerful Party maintains its power. Of course there is the threat of violence, the use of force, the propaganda and all of the rest.
But in Oceania, 85% of the population is comprised of “the Proles”, that is, the working masses, all those who do not belong to the Party. And it is explained that other than a few seldom occassions, all that is needed to control the Proles is a steady stream of vice, and in particular, pornography.
In Chapter 4, for instance, we discover that there is an entire ministry devoted to producing mass media entertainment for the Proles:
Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs
Orwell goes onto describe a special section of this department:
There was even a whole sub-section — Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak — engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.
We aren’t really told in direct terms at this point what the purpose of this is, though we might hazard a guess. Orwell has indicated that pornography is not an expression of sexual freedom, let alone political freedom, but something mass produced by a tyrannical regime interested in total control over the lives and thoughts of every member of society.
Though he might not have ever admitted to it, Orwell knew what Rousseau knew, and what the Catholic Church knows as well. To destroy the morality of a people is to completely break their will, to prepare the conditions through which they will happily submit to the most degrading slavery if it means they will have a steady supply of the poisons of their choice, which for millions and millions of men is hardcore pornography.
No mind control device is needed; pornography destroys families, weakens intimate bonds between husband and wife, father and child, cultivates selfishness to the point self-destruction, and creates a chemical and psychological dependency which is extremely difficult to break.
In 1984, the Party seeks to annihilate the human family among the relatively more educated and self-aware Party members through fanatical puritanism, complete with “anti-sex” brigades and scientific attempts to abolish the orgasm. For the Proles, however, pornography and vice in general accomplishes the task with relative ease:
Even the civil police interfered with them very little. There was a vast amount of criminality in London, a whole world-within-a-world of thieves, bandits, prostitutes, drug-peddlers, and racketeers of every description; but since it all happened among the proles themselves, it was of no importance. In all questions of morals they were allowed to follow their ancestral code. The sexual puritanism of the Party was not imposed upon them. Promiscuity went unpunished, divorce was permitted.
Pornography plays an instrumental role in reshaping political reality – breaking down and destroying local institutions such as family and community until nothing remains but the isolated, dependent individual and the state.
It is thus a most tragic irony that pornography’s most ardent defenders wear the mantle of civil libertarianism, arguing, as Reilly points out, that we must be free to produce, distribute and consume porn as a matter of political freedom. Those who sincerely believe this must ask themselves: what was Orwell, a defender of human liberty, trying to tell us about pornography and slavery, about morality and freedom?
It is unfortunate that, in the end, great theorists of positive liberty such as Rousseau or literary figures such as Orwell could not look past their contempt for Catholicism to touch upon their common interest. Orwell remained committed to the assumption that religion was as much an ‘opiate of the masses’ as pornography, going so far as to say in 1984 that had they wanted it, the Proles could have had their religion too, as a sort of additional pacifier.
We Catholics ought to do a better job of demonstrating how Christian morality, properly understood, taught, lived, and applied to the great social questions of our time, is the greatest antidote to Big Brother ever devised in human history. Arming ourselves with knowledge of the core teachings of Catholic social thought is the first step.