Totalitarianism is on the move. We must fight back with everything we have before it is too late

Frances WiddowsonIn the last part of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is arrested by the Thought Police and subjected to a long interrogation process by O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party. “There are three stages in your reintegration,” O’Brien tells Winston, “There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance.”

During many abusive brainwashing sessions in the Ministry of Love prison, Winston “learns” to see four fingers as five, recognize that two plus two equals five, and develop the “luminous certainty” that every suggestion that O’Brien makes, no matter how incorrect, is “absolute truth.” O’Brien asserts that these processes are necessary to “cure” Winston so that he can have his consciousness transformed and become one with The Party. In O’Brien’s words:

[The Party is] not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation.

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At the end of the novel, after going through the “understanding” and “acceptance” stages, the “reintegration” of Winston is complete. Sitting in the Chestnut Tree Cafe drinking clove-infused gin, Winston finally realizes that he loves Big Brother.

Although Orwell’s story is fictional, it was extrapolated from real-world examples drawn from his experiences with Stalinism while fighting in the Spanish Civil War, as well as his association with Arthur Koestler. Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, tells the story (informed by accounts from Stalin’s purges) of a Bolshevik by the name of Rubashov who is arrested by the authorities and tried for treason. In the novel, Rubashov confesses to crimes he has not committed and recants:

The undersigned, N. S. Rubashov, former member of the Central Committee of the Party, former Commissar of the People, former Commander of the 2nd Division of the Revolutionary Army, bearer of the Revolutionary Order for Fearlessness before the Enemy of the People, has decided, in consideration of the reasons exposed above, utterly to renounce his oppositional attitude and to denounce publicly his errors.

Extracting false confessions was also an important aspect of “thought reform” in Mao Zedong’s China.

I was also subjected to several inquisitional processes at Mount Royal University (MRU) before I was fired. (These processes were, admittedly, far less draconian than those described above.) On December 13, 2021, one week before I was terminated, I was directed to participate in a disciplinary meeting. The meeting was the outcome of a number of investigations that took place because MRU had decided, without promulgating its policy change, to regulate the private social media accounts of faculty members. In this meeting, the acting provost asked me to “accept responsibility” and “show remorse” for my actions. She implied that if I failed to do so, my employment relationship with MRU would be unviable.

In response to this intimidation, I stated that I could not “accept responsibility” for my actions because Section 25.4.1 of the Collective Agreement stated that “An Employee may not be disciplined for violation of a rule, regulation or instruction unless that rule, regulation or instruction has been promulgated, and communicated to the Employee, by the appropriate authority …” Because MRU had never announced that it intended to regulate private social media activities as a workplace issue, I could not have known that my actions violated MRU policies.

Meanwhile, I could not “show remorse” for my actions because I was simply defending myself from the mob. I continually alerted the university administration to how numerous MRU faculty members trivialized my academic achievements on social media and ostracized me for years. Nothing was ever done about it. I was, therefore, forced to turn to social media to respond to this academic bullying.

A public defence became especially necessary in July 2020, when an indigenous scholar-activist attempted to mobilize an anonymous “student-led” group against me for defending the journalist Wendy Mesley. Mesley’s word crime was a reference to the title of Pierre Vallières’ book White Niggers of America and to mention (not use) this racial epithet in an anti-racist context in a private editorial meeting.

Although I provided the acting provost with detailed evidence of the campaign that had been waged against me since 2016 and explained that I had changed my behaviour in accordance with her instructions to “refrain from posting to social media … commentary directed at individuals of the Mount Royal community,” this made no difference. MRU’s termination letter one week later included the following two “examples” for why I could no longer be employed at the university: “You have indicated that you will not take responsibility for your conduct” and “You have indicated that you have no remorse for your conduct.”

On a superficial level, one could see MRU’s demand that I express contrition as a way to obtain an admission of guilt to justify the discipline that I had received and any punishment that would be forthcoming. At the same time, however, it is difficult not to link the acting provost’s attempts to extract an admission of wrongdoing with the increasing influence of what Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Michael Rectenwald have called “reified postmodernism” (known colloquially as “wokeism”). According to this anti-Enlightenment, reactionary position, individuals ought to be coerced into stating things they do not believe in order to “make real” the subjective beliefs of oppressed groups, which will, in turn, empower these groups.

This can be seen in the diversity, inclusion, and equity loyalty oaths universities now demand of job applicants. While professors opposed such oaths during the McCarthy era, they now are embraced because they allegedly support “social justice.” More specific attempts at thought reform include official land acknowledgements and pressure to declare one’s pronouns. While land acknowledgements used to be voluntary moralizing, they are now imposed on university decision-making bodies because they are “the right thing to do.”

We are seeing a transition from arguments advocating that we support allegedly oppressed groups to official declarations mandating pretended agreement with their views. This is an indication of a growing autocracy and the beginnings of totalitarianism. As Orwell and others have alluded to in their writings, it is important for authorities in such an environment to coerce people to state a lie out loud so that it can become publicly accepted truth.

Although some might think that linking reified postmodernism to the emergence of totalitarian regimes is alarmist, we ought to recognize the similar manipulative techniques that underlie both. We are no longer using reason, evidence, and logic in decision-making but dogmatically imposing a predetermined conclusion and punishing anyone who dissents from it. And while this has terrible consequences for the dissenter, the social implications are much worse. It results in self-censorship for fear of being targeted, giving even more weight to the public perception that everyone is in agreement.

In my case, trying to get me to state that I “accepted responsibility” and “showed remorse” was part of an attempt to force me to comply with MRU’s diversity managerialist regime. Despite providing valid reasons why I could not have understood how to conduct myself on social media and despite explaining that I had changed my behaviour after receiving direction six months earlier, my principled refusal to submit to arbitrary punishment was used to justify my termination. This is indicative of the totalitarian impulse of thought control that is beginning to manifest itself in our colleges and universities.

Soon after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, George Orwell warned: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” We should all take this warning seriously and do our utmost to stand by the truth. This is particularly important in higher education, as it is the one institution where the pursuit of truth is supposed to be unfettered. The fact that such anti-intellectual intimidation tactics are deployed in an environment created to protect dissent shows how much Enlightenment values are under threat in Canada today.

Totalitarianism is on the move. We must fight back with everything we have before it is too late.

Frances Widdowson is a former professor of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. She was fired by the university in December 2021 and is a vocal advocate for academic freedom and free speech. You may find more information about her case at www.wokeacademy.info, which is going to arbitration on January 16-27, 2023. She is a co-author of “Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry” with Albert Howard, editor of “Indigenizing the University” and author of “Separate but Unequal.” She is also a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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