“If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth,” wrote Václav Havel while under Communist surveillance in Czechoslovakia. Whether its communism, Nazism, or any other tyrant, a primary strategy is to sow misinformation.When people don’t understand the truth, it’s more difficult to criticize and challenge the actions of those in power. Without that understanding, there’s less basis to hold people accountable. As Timothy Snyder wrote in On Tyranny,
“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual—and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.”
And while the majority of people aren’t naive enough to believe the stories that are spun trying to defend the morally indefensible, the actual issue isn’t in believing the trail of lies. The main concern is when we become so disgusted with the situation that it’s easier to just ignore it. As Gary Kasparov described the purpose of modern propaganda,
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
And whether it’s blind acceptance or willful negligence, tyrants still gain what they need to continue, which is the absence of accountability for their actions.
Don’t Stop Reading the News
“. . . the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.” – Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
The trend of shutting out the news has gained a lot of traction in recent years. A practice designed to distance ourselves from potential distractions that don’t have a positive impact on our lives.
I get it. Years of sensationalized outrage has numbed many people to the so-called news. And as the competition for clicks becomes more intense than ever, publishers present the edge cases as mainstream and let talking heads provide outrage over information.
So yes, I understand the desire to close our eyes to these events. I understand the benefit of limiting our focus to that which we can directly influence. If the sole objective is our own development and our personal profit, then this strategy makes sense.
But we don’t have that luxury. We don’t get to only focus on our own personal issues. Because with that path comes less people to hold our leaders accountable. Accountable to the ideals we expect them to represent.
If your company management were engaging in activities that were inconsistent with your values, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Wouldn’t you want to be informed so that you’re in a better position to influence that path?
Should it be different when it’s on a local or national scale? Should we ever expect things to improve if we’re turning a blind eye? As Eric Hoffer wisely put it,
“In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
We can stay informed. And influence the future. Or tune it out. And let others drive it.
Watch Out for the Rhinoceros
“I’ve got no horns. And I never will have.” – Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros
Growing up in 1930s Romania, playwright Eugène Ionesco watched his friends slowly drift into fascist behaviors. His experiences became the inspiration for his absurdist play, Rhinoceros, where people turn into great horned beasts after falling in line with tyrannical propaganda.
As more and more townspeople transform into rhinoceroses, it becomes clear that not everyone fully buys into the lunacy, but that indifference eventually becomes acceptance. And as the majority start sprouting horns, suddenly it becomes easier to just go with the group and avoid the hassle. Until everyone is a rhinoceros and any opposition becomes much more difficult.
At the end, the main character, a drunkard named Berenger, reflects on the impossibility of reversing the transformations around him. In his words,
“In any case, to convince them you’d have to talk to them. And to talk to them I’d have to learn their language. Or they’d have to learn mine. But what language do I speak? What is my language? French? Am I talking French? Yes, it must be French. But what is French? I can call it French if I want and nobody can say it isn’t—I’m the only one who speaks it. What am I saying?”
We can’t afford to wait until we’re surrounded by rhinoceroses to start holding tough conversations. The vilification of the media and the embrace of disinterest in current events is the first step in closing our eyes to these transformations. Until the damage is so great that it can no longer be ignored. And conversation becomes much more difficult. As the great French philosopher Simone Weil put it,
“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”
Don’t Separate Yourself
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Nearly seven decades ago, Hannah Arendt gave us the timeless, and increasingly timely, classic The Origins of Totalitarianism. In it, Arendt discusses how terror builds from loneliness and exposes how political regimes have used it as their chief weapon in pursuit of oppression. In her insightful words,
“Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.”
As each individual becomes less knowledgeable of ongoing events, we invoke a self-appointed isolation. We limit our ability to influence because we’ve sacrificed that connection to both reality and our fellow citizens.
I’ve long felt that the best method of positively differentiating yourself in a company is to have a point of view that challenges the status quo and pushes the organization in new directions. But this only works if you’re informed enough to have realistic ideas. And it’s all for naught unless you understand the environment well enough to recognize the opportunities.
Be Involved. Be Part of the Solution.
“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” – Edward R. Murrow
We all have a responsibility to positively influence the events of our day. And the events of this week have shown that public involvement and pressure can lead to positive change. We’ve just seen how public outcry can cause movement within an office that’s demonstrated unyielding commitment to preconceived policies, regardless of how ineffective or destructive they turn out to be.
A victory that wouldn’t have come without the actions of a well-informed public.
In a world where we all have potential platforms, we all carry a portion of this responsibility. We’re all responsible to contribute towards the truth. And we’re all responsible to help hold our leaders accountable to the standards and ideals we expect our country to represent.
To do this we need to be present within the real world. We need to stay informed. We need to investigate and promote the truth. And we need to play our part to reinforce the behaviors and principles that we expect our country to live up to. Because as John Steinbeck wrote in a 1941 letter to his friend Pascal Covici,
“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”