Yesterday I tried to help my undergraduate students see how important it is to entertain doubts about the rhetoric of national circumstance–not merely as a generally useful practice in our political lives, but as an exercise in intellectual honesty. And accordingly I talked to them about George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” where Orwell begins his narrative about serving as a minor British colonial official in the Far East with the memorable assertion: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”
The essay as you likely know, narrates a young man’s tale of personal and cultural insecurity (the two are not the same) and unfolds a dramatic instance of hypocrisy in action. Orwell demonstrates his capacity for emotional candor describing how he shot a runaway elephant for no better reason than wishing to avoid the appearance of cowardice before a crowd of rural onlookers. The crowd consists of the colonized. He is the “imperial man” and the elephant, who is peacefully eating grass is the sacrificial victim.
“Shooting an Elephant” is about a great variety of things, most having to do with what we call nowadays by the inelegant term “arriving at consciousness” which means the first deep instance of knowing more than one kind of irony in a single moment, and in turn knowing that you have failed a human test. The failure comes when we know our motives are sullied and our actions are vain and theatrical. This is the material of tragedy if we don’t learn to give words to it. Orwell gives his cowardice the proper lingo. In his essay “Why I Write” he said that writers principally write for four reasons–the first two are easy, “getting back” at the adults who embarrassed us in childhood; and the love of beauty. But it’s numbers 3 and 4 that I wanted my students to see (Orwell): “(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”
I couldn’t tell if they were seeing what I wanted them to see–that personal bravery and public bravery depend on the fierce desire to see things as they are and not in terms that we invariably prefer. I tried to use an analogy from current affairs–noting how the pundits on American TV have responded rather broadly to the death of the US ambassador to Libya by arguing that the Muslim world simply hates American values. “Isn’t it possible that widespread rancor against the US has something to do with the fact that we have killed over one million people in Iraq; that our drone assaults are largely killing civilians?” The truth should make one uncomfortable and one is best counseled to never forget it.
Of course this is an overdetermined way of saying one should admit his mistakes. Orwell:
Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.