It is easy to think the roots of tyranny lie outside of ourselves, but perhaps we are looking too far away.
In Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a Czech refugee living in Paris joins a protest march against the 1968 Soviet invasion of her homeland. To her surprise, the refugee could not bring herself to shout with the other protesters and soon left the rally. Her French friends didn’t understand her reluctance. The refugee silently mused that her friends could never understand that “behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”
Beware of groups marching in lockstep, even for a seemingly good cause, Kundera warns.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill pointed us in a similar direction when he observed a tyranny as terrible as any imposed by “public authorities.” Mill called it the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”
Mill described “the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” Mill counseled, “individual independence” protected from “encroachment” from the tyranny of the majority “is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”
The tyranny of societal mandates, Mill warned, can be “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
On Liberty was published in 1859. Sadly, the tendency Mill described is all-too-common among individuals living in 2023 who believe “their feelings… are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.”
Often such “feelings” are based on the prevailing orthodoxy disseminated by The New York Times, NPR, and other such media outlets.
Worse, feelings-driven individuals up the ante and demand others conform. Mill explained, “The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises, would like them to act.”
Others may share your feelings and preferences. Yet, Mill reasoned, even when shared, individual preferences are not elevated to a guide for living for others:
No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one.
Here is Mill’s bottom line: “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Your feelings, your opinions, your sense of what is good for you, your sense of what will make you happier “is not a sufficient warrant” to interfere with the individual sovereignty of any one else.
Mill was unequivocal about the wrongness of silencing dissenting voices: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
There has never been a dystopian novel, nor a totalitarian society, where freedom of speech was not suppressed.
The haunting question is why do so many enable totalitarians by demanding others conform to their personal feelings?
Mill taught us how to resign as an enabler of tyranny. Our feelings about an issue, no matter how widely shared, are never justification for coercing others or censoring competing views. Mill wrote, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” He argued that suppressors of other views “have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty.”
Those who believe they should impose their opinions on others are probably not reading this essay. Among them are people who act as though they are infallible.
Hearing Mill’s arguments, some readers may see they silence themselves, believing their opinions are socially unacceptable. When we remain silent we co-create “collective illusions” which Todd Rose wrote are “social lies” occurring “in situations where a majority of individuals in a group privately reject a particular opinion, but they go along with it because they (incorrectly) assume that most other people accept it.”
Rose explained, “We often conform because we’re afraid of being embarrassed. Our stress levels rise at the thought of being mocked or viewed as incompetent, and when that happens, the fear-based part of the brain takes over.”
The choice to remain silent, to self-censor, is connected to the erroneous belief that by going along with the majority our “personal responsibility for our decisions” is diffused, “making it easier to bear mistakes.”
A person who values liberty understands the high costs of assuaging feelings by eschewing responsibility.
Václav Havel was a Czech playwright, dissident, and the first president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. In his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel explored the dynamics of mindlessly going along with prevailing sentiments. A grocery manager places in his shop window a sign: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel revealed the manager placed the sign, not out of real support for the slogan, but to avoid “trouble” and “to get along in life.” No big deal, the manager may think: “It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee [me] a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society.’”
Havel’s shop manager hopes his sign signals, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”
Havel wrote his essay in 1978. Could Havel have imagined that virtue signaling would be the norm in the West in 2023?
Had the sign read “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” Havel reasoned, the grocer would not eagerly degrade his “dignity” by signaling his fear.
“Ideology,” Havel wrote, “is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”
Havel revealed a purpose in adopting an ideology you do not believe in: you can live under the “illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.”
Havel called this a “post-totalitarian system,” filled with “hypocrisy and lies,” in which “the lack of free expression [is claimed to be] the highest form of freedom.”
Havel was clear: to prop up hypocrisy and lies, we must behave as though we believe the lies. Individuals, he wrote, “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
Havel kindled hope as he ended his essay: “The real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”
Mill, Havel, and Kundera all point us to a terrible truth: our moral weakness, desire to evade responsibility, and illusion that the majority makes right have led us down the slippery slope of forfeiting our freedom.
How do we respond to those working to undermine human rights? The solution is simple, but not without personal costs. Stop lying, stop degrading yourself, stop pretending to believe what you don’t, and resign from the role as an enabler of tyranny.