METERMost of us are not brave. We would not protest in the streets of Kabul while the armed and triumphant clerical reactionaries touched their weapons. I’m hardly giving news when I say that fear makes us keep our heads down and settle. But the way we conform makes a huge difference. Oppressive regimes, organizations and political cultures insist that we willingly intend to agree with them. Sometimes the bravest way to fight them is simply to admit that we are afraid.
Outside of abusive personal relationships, fear produces a sycophantic subservience in two areas that dominate life in otherwise safe and democratic countries. In most workplaces, managers allow little or no free discussion or criticism. The cases of dictatorial power that have become famous are those in which administrative megalomania has led corporations to disaster: Enron, for example, or NatWest. But anyone who takes an honest look at their work life will accept that in many hierarchies most of the time men and women in higher positions demand submission and, as absolute monarchs, are surprised when they do not receive it.
I am not being too rude to modern managers, both public and private, when I regard Jeff Fairburn’s reaction as symptomatic of a culture that cannot cope with solid and ordinary arguments. The BBC asked the chief executive of construction company Persimmon to justify a £ 75 million bond. I couldn’t handle a simple question and left the interview. By Donald Rumsfeld list of the limits of knowledge it is incomplete. Along with his “unknown acquaintances”, when we know that there are things we do not know, and “unknown strangers”, where we do not know what we do not know, the least discussed generator of ignorance must sit: the unknown acquaintances. People in subordinate positions know that their superiors are making mistakes, but they dare not let them know for fear of the consequences.
Your acquiescence is accepted as the price you pay for making a living. I’m sure it must have happened, but I’ve never heard an employee say words like “I’ll pretend to agree with you boss, but only because I’m afraid of losing my job if I don’t.” . Most workers are too scared to admit they are scared.
As with work, so with politics. No one hoping to advance right-wing politics can admit that Brexit was a mistake or that reengaging with the EU should be the overriding goal of British foreign policy. Nor can they say that they are afraid to admit it. They live a lie pretending to be true believers.
On the left, the list of taboos you can’t break goes all the way. Again, no one admits to watching them out of fear of online abuse or malicious colleagues demanding their dismissal.
There is a cosmetically attractive argument that following the lies of the powerful is better for the human spirit than acknowledging your cowardice. Writing in 1978When it seemed that communist control of Eastern Europe was going to last forever, Václav Havel described a greengrocer who puts up the party motto “workers of the world unite!” in your shop window. (He can put any modern and graceless alternative in its place.) The greengrocer wants to show that he is an obedient citizen that the police should leave alone. But you won’t acknowledge the truth by putting up a sign in your window that says “I’m afraid of being singled out for punishment.” The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation on the shop window. He preserves his dignity by pretending to believe what the powerful want him to believe. His sense of self-worth would be destroyed by admitting “I’m scared.”
Francis Fukuyama was so impressed with the Havel passage that he used it in The end of the story, written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to present his Hegelian argument that the growing demand for human dignity, as well as the needs of a modern economy, was pushing humanity toward liberal democracy.
The flaw in the argument is that those who refuse to acknowledge their cowardice are not the only ones whose dignity is preserved. Surprisingly, few of those in power want their subordinates to admit that fear prevents them from speaking. Perhaps the leaders of the mob are happy to hear their followers say that they are too scared to contradict them. But most people with hierarchical or ideological power are like abusive men who beat up a woman one minute and expect her to act like nothing the next. They want everyone around them to pretend that fear of punishment doesn’t explain their obedience.
Censorship is most effective when no one admits it exists. Organizations or ideologies that can persuade employees or followers to feign a belief give outsiders the appearance of being united in a freely chosen purpose. Meanwhile, the individuals trapped within them can be defeated by the idea that they are alone in their doubts.
Pessimism seems to be in order today. It’s not just that the Taliban are bringing a new dark age to Afghanistan. All over the world, dictatorial governments are consolidating and expanding their power. The 21st century has not turned out as Havel, Fukuyama, and the other optimists of the late 20th century hoped.
For all that, author Stefan Stern, who has spent his career debunking management myths, points out that every company claims to believe in allowing openness and transparency in the workplace. In politics, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and many other corrupt autocracies, organized for the convenience of the local strongman, continue to pretend to be democracies. To use the cliché, his deceptions are the compliment that vice pays virtue. They still feel the need to speak lip-service about ideals they don’t intend to follow. We will know that the 21st century is taking a late turn for the better when virtue ceases to complement vice and subjugated peoples and all those in the West who feel the need to accept deception in their work and political life find the courage to admit that they are make up out of fear.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism