Stand Up for the Wrongly Accused!

It’s tempting to pick and choose whom to defend against the social media mob. A timeless essay by George Orwell reminds us why that is a mistake.

Among George Orwell’s many essays, the one for which I have the greatest respect may seem, at first glance, an unlikely choice: It is a defense of P. G. Wodehouse, written in the dying days of World War II, against the charge that he was a fascist sympathizer.

Orwell was, of course, a staunch opponent of fascism. An early critic of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, he felt so strongly about the anti-fascist cause that he signed up to fight Franco’s troops in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, and had the wounds to show for it.

Wodehouse, meanwhile, had collaborated with the Nazis in a shameless manner. After spending the beginning of the war under house arrest in occupied France, he agreed to go to Berlin to broadcast on Nazi radio. It was, Orwell acknowledges, one of Joseph Goebbels’ most important propaganda coups.

Why, then, did Orwell publish a painstaking essay in defense of a writer who had betrayed his country for an evil regime?

The answer is simple: Because Orwell thought that the substance of the accusations against Wodehouse was wrong.

Wodehouse, according to Orwell, was naïve, selfish and cowardly. But he simply wasn’t sufficiently interested in politics to classify as a secret fascist. “The events of 1941,” Orwell concludes, “do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity.”

Now, given how little sympathy Orwell had for Wodehouse, he could easily have let the whole affair pass without quibbling about the exact extent of his guilt. But even in a society at war with a mortal enemy, the principle that we should not indulge in witch hunts, or condemn people for crimes they did not commit—whether in a court of law, or “merely” in the court of public opinion—was so important to Orwell that he felt compelled to correct the record:

Few things in this war have been more morally disgusting than the present hunt after traitors and quislings. At best it is largely the punishment of the guilty by the guilty. In France, all kinds of petty rats—police officials, penny-a-lining journalists, women who have slept with German soldiers—are hunted down while almost without exception the big rats escape.

I have been thinking about this essay a lot over the past few weeks because America is now going through a series of incomparably sillier hunts for traitors and thought criminals. As Emily Yoffe catalogued in her must-read article for Persuasion earlier this week, a set of cultural enforcers is trying to impose an ethic of contagion. Their ambition is not only to cancel those who are guilty of thinking the wrong thing; they also want to cancel anybody who remains friendly with the accused, has shared a platform with them, or dares to defend them.

This principle of guilt by association is an incredibly effective mechanism for ensuring that few people will speak up for the target of a social media mob. While most of us may believe that the charges are unfair, each of us has a reason to keep our mouth shut. And so the supportive majority remains silent as a few fanatics descend on yet another victim.

Guilt by association is especially powerful in the many situations in which the victim of the latest five minutes of hate is, like just about every other human being on earth, not entirely without blame. Do you really want to go on record defending someone if doing so makes you responsible for all their sins—past or future, real or imagined?

I know just how powerful this instinct is because I myself feel it nearly every day. When the accusation is particularly absurd, or the person who is under attack especially honorable, I speak up for them without hesitation. But when the person who is in danger of receiving an unduly harsh verdict in the court of public opinion holds some views with which I myself strongly disagree, or has made a mistake that really is deserving of some minor form of social censure, I hear a little voice inside me ask: “Is this really the hill you want to die on? Can’t you just sit this one out?”

But as Orwell’s essay reminds us, that would be a big mistake. For what is at stake when somebody is falsely accused is not only the fate of that particular individual; it is the maintenance of a principle without which an honest intellectual life would quickly become impossible.

The obligation to stand up for the wrongly accused—even or perhaps especially when they are imperfect—remains as important now as it has ever been. So I shall do my best to live up to the example Orwell set in much more perilous times. And I hope that you will, too.

Yascha Mounk is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Persuasion.