19 April 2013

Redefining reality to accord with our desires

The late Czech President Václav Havel was better positioned than most people to penetrate the ideological illusions that so marred the 20th century. Living in a communist country that claimed to be a workers' paradise made him aware of the dangers of any worldview built on a false construct that not only claims to be reality but attempts to suppress those who persist in telling the truth. According to Havel,
Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.

I was reminded of Havel's trenchant analysis as I read this piece by Stephen J. Heaney: Cats and Dogs and Marriage Laws. What if there were a movement to rename cats "dogs"? Would that really erase the difference between the two animals? As Heaney puts it: "There are serious risks in adopting definitions based on wishful thinking, not reality." Nevertheless, it is characteristic of the followers of a political illusion, not only to assume the authority to redefine reality, but to compel others to accept this redefinition, as both Havel and Heaney understand. Are we there yet? Perhaps not, but the overall direction is pretty clear. If we do get there, will we have the courage to tell the truth and refuse to "live within a lie"?

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