Talking Points

The Orwell Foundation gives in to cancel culture

In 2020, the Orwell Foundation awarded its book prize in political writing to Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by former teacher Kate Clanchy. According to the judges, "Clanchy's reflections on teaching and the stories of her students are moving, funny, full of love and offer sparkling insights into modern British society."

On Tuesday, the foundation had second thoughts. With the book facing criticism of ostensibly demeaning descriptions of minority, immigrant, and autistic students, the foundation issued a statement acknowledging "concerns and hurt" about the book and distancing itself from "individual judging panel decisions."

The Orwell Foundation statement wasn't the worst response to the controversy, which provoked a torrent of online abuse. The author herself issued a groveling apology before tweeting that "I am not a good person...You are right to blame me, and I blame myself." She announced that she will rewrite future editions of the book to avoid offense. The book's publisher also declared itself "profoundly" sorry for the episode.

While its actual content is less egregious than those remarks, the foundation's response is symbolically more damaging. Orwell is best remembered as the creator of a dystopia in which totalitarian ideology, pervasive surveillance, and constant editing of the past to meet the political requirements of the present make individuality impossible. By refusing to defend the book it once honored and the judges who selected it, the Orwell Foundation is confirming its namesake's fears.