Upstanders, not Bystanders

I may be in Middle School now, but I still remember those pithy words our counselors uttered to us almost three years ago: “Be an upstander, not a bystander.” Whenever you see wrong, speak out and take action; don’t ignore it. Orwell also believed this, though his matters of concern were ones larger than schoolyard bullying: he expresses through Animal Farm the opinion that apathy and inaction enable totalitarianism.

In Animal Farm, the tyrannical and manipulative pigs have such an easy time committing all their wrongful deeds mostly due to the passivity of the working animals. The sheep, who were shallow and easily indoctrinated by Napoleon, were used as tools to silence the few instances of protest by the mostly-complacent animals. The sheep’s facileness is most apparent when they were exploited to rule out any chance of protest after Napoleon successfully eliminated Snowball: “…the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of “Four legs good, two legs bad!” which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.” (Orwell, C5 P21) Despite the fact that Napoleon had just taken power by force, the sheep were still unwavering in their mindless support for him. Boxer was capable of staging a coup and putting an end to the totalitarian pig government, but he didn’t, mostly because one of the maxims he invariably follows is “Napoleon is always right”. Due to his naivety, he was unable to properly recognize who was at fault for the first round of purges undertaken by Napoleon and said, “I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves.” (Orwell, C7 P34) Not only did Boxer allow the pigs to stay in power by doing nothing, but his heroic status amongst the working animals was also used by the pigs to encourage servility: “Napoleon ended his speech with a reminder of Boxer’s two favourite maxims, ‘I will work harder’ and ‘Comrade Napoleon is always right’–maxims, he said, which every animal would do well to adopt as his own.” (Orwell, C9 P48) Of course, the fault for all this inaction does not lie with the working animals; their illiteracy and lack of education make them easy to manipulate, which is also another one of Animal Farm‘s themes. However, their failure to act and question nonetheless is what let the tyranny of the pigs flourish.

The other animals may have been unquestioning due to their simplemindedness, but Benjamin was just plain apathetic to the tyranny of the pigs. There were numerous occasions where he could have said something but chose not to. Since it was earlier stated that “Benjamin could read as well as any pig” (Orwell, C3 P13), it could be assumed that he could recognize that the Commandments were being changed, yet said nothing to alert the other animals of this treachery. Even after witnessing a suspicious event that heavily implicated the pigs in editing the 7 Commandments, Benjamin did not convey his knowledge to the others or accuse the pigs of deception: “None of the animals could form any idea as to what this meant, except old Benjamin, who nodded his muzzle with a knowing air, and seemed to understand, but would say nothing.” (Orwell, C9 P42) Benjamin also did not care that the pigs were likely fabricating numbers and misleading the animals into believing their lives now were better than their lives back when Jones was still running the farm: “Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse…” (Orwell, C10 P50) Had Benjamin revealed the pigs’ corruptness and manipulation, the animals would probably not have put up with the tyranny and would have made better lives for themselves. Regardless of whether his apathy was in fact a way to avoid persecution, he was allowing the pigs to abuse their power by not acting.

Orwell was encouraging people to take a stand against tyranny in Animal Farm, using the book as a medium to criticize Stalin’s brutal regime. Using the naive animals as allegories, he demonstrates the dangers that come with passivity in the face of totalitarianism. Be it simple ignorance, as was the case with most animals, or willful apathy, as was the case with Benjamin, failure to think critically leads to more power to the government. I agree with his sentiment; after all, have there not been countless protests that prove tyranny and inequality could be quashed if enough people act? The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, Salt March, all these liberating movements were only possible because people did not sit back as injustice went on. Even the Tiananmen Protest made ripples; despite its bloodiness, it drew attention to the brutality of the Chinese government. As our counselors said, and as George Orwell is telling us to do, we should all be upstanders when we identify injustice.

Picture of Orwell courtesy of

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