The Elephant in the Room
Don't shoot the elephant.
While George Orwell’s seminal work, 1984, remains a pillar of our cultural consciousness, I believe his earlier writings present a more striking critique of our modern world. As an officer of the British Raj in Burma, Orwell grew astutely aware of the frightening dynamics of tyranny. In Shooting an Elephant, he recounts these effects at work.
One day, Orwell receives word that a rogue elephant is on the loose. We learn that the elephant itself was domesticated, but had escaped from its chains and was reportedly wreaking havoc in a nearby town. The young officer attempts to track the beast by following the guidance of locals, who Orwell suspects might be lying about the matter entirely. Upon finding a trampled corpse, the danger of the situation presents itself, and he calls for his assistant to bring his rifle. It’s then that the elephant’s location becomes known—calmly grazing in a nearby rice paddy.
As he approaches, a crowd begins to form. He had not intended to kill the elephant—the rifle was simply for defense—but the townspeople were drawn by the belief of impending violence. Orwell recognizes that the beast’s rampage was in rebellion of its confinement, but, now free, the elephant was of no danger. After all, it was valuable and could produce much labor; it would be a waste to kill it.
Ethical and logical justifications melted away with a quick glance towards the crowd, now swelled to thousands. Like an actor upon a stage, he feels compelled to give in to performative impulse and conjure the spectacle that onlookers desire. A subversion of power dynamics; herein lies the clear irony of tyranny. That in diminishing the liberty of others you craft an authoritative identity that must be upheld—the propriety of power. Orwell fires at the elephant.
The beast lay wheezing as he continues to pump bullets into its flesh. Lacking the skill to quickly end its life, the grotesque moment stretches on. Orwell leaves the scene defeated, unable to finish it and wrestling with the horror of what just unfolded. In the aftermath, he considers different points of view of the incident—many of his contemporaries taking the disgustingly logical interpretation; such a shame to lose a valuable animal for simply killing a poor local. Orwell expresses empathy for the trampled man, yet is also thankful that in his death lies a legal justification for the slaying of the elephant. He then wonders if anyone realizes that, in the moment, he shot the elephant to simply not appear a fool.
For Orwell, this event illustrates a deeper meaning. A cycle of tyranny; the restrained, the masses, and the soldiers like spokes on a wheel. Each rotation instilling deeper, more irrational and barbaric roles onto a society. Can you blame the elephant for rebelling and stampeding about? Perhaps it was the people’s fault, their eyes like spotlights beckoning action. And then there’s the young officer, the force of the land, so weak, helpless, and void of reason. Above them stands an empire, a headless collective stretching its mandate over foreigners. Propelled forward by the cycle of tyranny, and plagued with rotting spokes. In time, collapsing into a tarnished heap.
Who really pulled the trigger?
It’s this question that interests me. In colonialism, the answer seems clear; the empire had no place there, and the resulting events are its sins to bear. Orwell challenges us by taking this concept closer to home in 1984. Purveyors of Thoughtcrime are restrained and stamped out, and the average citizen is completely subsumed by Newspeak. The Ministries’ legions uphold the directives of Ingsoc, yet in Winston and Julia we see a hint of hope—before being crushed into submissive love of Big Brother.
The banality of this tyranny is frightening, but obvious from the reader’s perspective. The novel begs the question, at the time an increasingly serious one, shall we allow our society to slip into this? “Never”, we chant in unison.
Clear similarities between Ingsoc and the direction of our current system can be drawn, as many have and will continue to do. Though, this isn’t particularly interesting to me. The reality is that tyranny itself is emergent, first presenting itself as a benign necessity, then, before long, absorbing its host. The challenge lies in identifying the runaway tumor apart from ordinary growth.
The role of the state lies in issuing security, law, and liberty. By all accounts, this order is not random, but a sequential requirement. In the face of an existential threat, we’d give up both law and liberty to see an end to it; the specter of martial law looms over us. Similarly, our liberty stands at odds with encroaching laws, veiled and supported in the spirit of security, yet increasingly mimicking the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. It’s only in a secure society that we craft laws of clearly denoted cause and effect, constructing coherent rules to follow. And it’s only in a society of security and law that we may have liberty—the fragile keystone and collective reward for continued stability.
Liberty itself is often considered to be interchangeable with “freedom”, but I find this to be too assumptive. The word comes from the Latin libertas, a term weaponized by the Roman aristocracy opposing authoritarian ambitions. Libertas was simply the opposition of one ascending from the many, of course, “many” meaning the wealthy elites. Rome itself was a slave society and “freedom” was not bestowed to all. Interestingly, this other word instead comes from the Saxon freiheit. While similar in modern definition, the spirit is not. Germanic peoples emphasized the power of an individual, a necessity for cooperative survival in their brutish world. To them, freiheit was the ability to go about daily life as one pleased. From this lens, recognize that “liberty” and “freedom” might be the same in practice, but the source of their power is very different. Liberty is a gift from above, while freedom sprouts from below.
What we practice today is indeed liberty, and just as easy as it is given, it can be taken. The great challenge of the modern state is balancing the threat of tyranny with the increasing demand for security and law, both of which are stretched as our world evolves. But who watches the Watchmen? The people?
At the root of Western liberalism lies democracy, the spirited will of the masses. Itself the esteemed evolution of enlightenment thinkers peering beyond traditional forms of rule, yet not beyond actions one might view as tyrannical. The last five years should be evidence enough of our system’s capacity for it. Democracy forms an entity of its own, seemingly an artificial intelligence with goals that we can only grasp at understanding. I often wonder if its sclerosis is by design, an innate resistance to change in order to support our country’s greatest export—stability. Yet, it seems all despise its current form in contrast to something far more idealized. Perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that it needs fixing, but in our constant squabble it grows in power. Our headless empire.
In recent times, I’ve heard an elephant’s last bellows—and there’s a hell of a lot more of them running around, grown restless in captivity and now broken free. The masses glue themselves to their screens, frantic addicts to the spectacle, muted cheers and all. Our pin-striped soldiers assuming their role, absent critical thinking of their own, pushing the wheel ever forward. All of us falling deeper into our predetermined roles, mere players on a stage. All of us outraged.
I question how long it can roll on, for the road seems bumpy ahead—climate change, population crisis, and conflict on the horizon. Technological scaffolding keeps us steady, but increasingly feeds off waning liberty. There’s a dream of “freiheit”, or bottom-up governance, but it is just that, a dream—and one often twisted into various idealistic systems doomed to fail.
In the meantime, I, too, feel compelled to pull the trigger and continue the charade. A world wrought with foolish action performed by those simply attempting to not be declared fools themselves. Irony may be the death of us all.