I was doing the Monday night routine helping tutor my usual group of high school girls when one of them presents her essay assignment about George Orwell’s Animal Farm, wanting to brainstorm some of the key themes with me and their historical relevance. I read this book in Grade 10 and still remember the majority of it, but it wasn’t until this past week that it really hit me how much I love this book.
I’ll admit, I dismissed this book at the time I read it not only because I was young and did not fully understand the context, but I was also disturbed by the idea of animals killing each other and missed the bigger point. This is the problem with high school: even though Animal Farm is a simple enough read, its historical allusions are not necessarily self evident to teenagers and my teacher never bothered to discuss the real points Orwell was trying to make about society at large, she simply made us write out plot summaries each week SMH.
Since it’s been over 5 years since I’ve even thought about this book, going over it the other day with one of my students–I must admit her teacher gave her a waaay better assignment!–I rediscovered how much I love this book, and George Orwell in general! This guy was ahead of his time.
Consider how we so frequently use social media as a means of expressing ourselves. We use it to share what we’re doing, to promote ourselves, and to share our opinions on social issues or resist what we see as oppressive regimes of power. Social media outlets have become vehicles for change: they are the new medium in which everyday people’s messages are widely and publicly circulated.
To put Orwell’s most famous works into context, it’s important to look at the time in history when he was writing. He published Animal Farm and 1984 both in a span of 5 years apart, starting with Animal Farm in 1945 (the year WWII ended). This first book was an allegorical novel implicitly referencing Stalin’s tyrannical leadership in the Soviet Union and exposing the ways in which leadership grows corrupt over time with the passive consent of its citizens.
For those who haven’t read the book, basically it is about a bunch of animals that live on a farm and manage to overthrow the people living there and running the farm. The animals paint 7 Commandments of Animalism on the barn, the most important of which states that “All animals are equal”. Two pigs adopt leadership roles and vow to create a society that runs based on the interests and well-being of everyone. Sound familiar?
Long story short, one of the pigs chases the other pig off and slowly begins his transition to fascism by enacting changes to the governance structure of the farm, mainly by taking away other leadership roles and forcing the other animals to do things they don’t want for the “good” of the society. One of the most disturbing moments is when he kills off an old horse who can no longer contribute to the farm’s production, even though the horse kept working because he was promised retirement. None of the other animals even question it. At the very end, the commandments are all changed, including the final one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Revisiting this work made me realize how extremely relevant it still is, and what a powerful message it sends. Orwell’s book 1984 is also a revealing text that centers mainly on the increasingly invasive methods of surveillance people are exposed to, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll continue with only Animal Farm. The point is that Orwell’s means of resistance and expression included his writing, and he managed to publish these works at significant moments in history that worked to challenge the discourses at the time.
Orwell also wrote an essay about the kinds of words and phrases that are most effective in gaining a reader’s attention and are most easily accessible so that a writer’s message will be fully absorbed. The preface for Animal Farm was also focused on the problems with British censorship and criticized his country for suppressing concerns about the ongoing issues in the USSR. For the most obvious reasons I love this guy, and he paved the way for writers to be taken seriously as actors mediating positive social change.
He established the power of the pen.
I know it’s a far stretch but I believe that writers like him also facilitated the means for other writers attempting to undermine certain power structures. Orwell was brave and spoke out in an intelligent way against a violent and oppressive form of leadership, and attempted to hold his own government responsible for the part they had in allowing the perpetuation of another dictatorship even if it did not personally affect him or his quality of life.
The connection I want to make is with hip-hop music. Early rap artists forced their message out there, and recognized that there was a need for their own communities to realize the social injustices they were experiencing so came up with a medium that they could relate to. Most people associate rap music these days with mindless lyrics about “bitches and hoes” and nothing too enlightening. But when you look at any other genre of music, it’s the same sort of material just a little more refined and less cursing. Such is mainstream music.
When hip-hop first emerged on the scene in the States it was a means of expression and resisting the powers that be, and it was extremely intelligent because it was in a form that people who were experiencing oppression could understand, encouraging more marginalized populations to become involved in the movement. Even the most offensive rap songs today are still to some extent concerned with the power of shock value and countering mainstream ideologies that permeate our everyday lives.
So what do George Orwell and rap music have in common? They are both examples of using different kinds of genres of texts to get people to challenge the status quo, and realize the potential harm behind certain kinds of power. These works have both raised self awareness of the inner workings of society and how to begin to enact change. While our society is becoming more and more attuned to what’s going on we can never stop being aware or reading our newspapers and Twitter feeds because a large part of awareness is also participation and I can only hope that this article has helped acheive that in some small way!
And if you haven’t read Animal Farm you can check out the movie here *really old school but still awesome!*: