All too often today people in Western liberal democracies remain silent when they see injustice around them. They choose to not speak up when they see political correctness, identity politics, and gender ideology destroying families, societies, and countries. They refuse to defend people who are wrongly fired from their jobs, denied promotions, attacked for practicing their religion, or “canceled” by the cultural elites for espousing beliefs against the left-wing ideology dominant in the United States and Europe. Rather than take a stand for the truth, they choose to remain silent and parrot platitudes about not being able to make a difference; they resign themselves to accepting a system that they know is unjust. But is there something meaningful that people could do against the oppression that is all around them?
Czech dissident and playwright (and later President of Czechoslovakia) Vaclav Havel offers one possible avenue of action. When faced with the degrading horrors of the communist system in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he came up with an idea, an idea that ended up bringing down the Soviet empire: he said that people had to “start living in the truth.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia writes that Havel “said that the way to fight a culture of lies, whatever form the lies take, is to consciously live the truth instead of merely talking about it. The power of living the truth does not consist in physical strength or threats, ‘but in the light it casts’ on the ‘pillars [of a mendacious] system on its unstable foundations.’” (243, Strangers in a Strange Land)
In his essay “The Power of the Powerless” written in 1977, Havel writes that the reason the oppressive communist system was able to impose its will on its people was because everyone within the system tacitly played by its rules and agreed to “live within a lie.” He gives the example of a greengrocer who places in his store window a sign with the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” even though the sign most likely does not express his true feelings. Why does the greengrocer do this?
He put [the sign] into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not have the proper ‘decoration’ in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done to get along in life. It is one of a thousand details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society’, as they say. (41, Living in Truth)
Significantly, each person who lives within this lie reinforces everyone else likewise living in the lie:
Metaphysically speaking, without the greengrocer’s slogan the office worker’s slogan would not exist, and vice versa. Each proposes to the other that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal. Their mutual indifference to each other’s slogans is only an illusion: in reality, by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place. Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient. Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both victims of the system and its instruments. (52)
But how can an individual who in essence is forced to put up the sign maintain his dignity? How can the state “conceal” the fact that it is oppressing its people this way? The state does this through the veneer of ideology:
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’, he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, ‘What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?’ Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the façade of something higher. And that something is ideology. (42)
But how does ideology actually help the greengrocer live within the lie? It does this by providing a comprehensive worldview that hides the mendacity of the system behind appeals to higher things. Havel writes that ideology:
offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something ‘supra-personal’ and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and themselves…It is the veil behind which human beings can hide their own ‘fallen existence’, their trivialization, and their adaption to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. (43)
And this ideology permeates all aspects of the totalitarian system to cover up its oppression (ala George Orwell’s Double Think and Newspeak):
The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with 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 lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom….banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of worldviews. 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 protect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing. (44-45)
People need not believe the discrepancies between ideology and real life; they just “must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along 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.” (45)
And what is the gravest threat to totalitarianism and its ideology? Living within the truth. Havel states: “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” (57)
Havel asks us to imagine the greengrocer refusing to continue living in a lie by not putting up the sign, not voting in elections that have no meaning, or by speaking his true mind at public events. What would happen to our greengrocer in a totalitarian state? Punishment would be both swift and severe and he would be deemed a dangerous pariah. Our greengrocer would be demoted and have his pay reduced. His family vacation out of the country would be cancelled and his children would be denied educational opportunities. His friends would shun him. In a hundred other ways he would be made to suffer. Under Stalinism, the gulag and executions were all too common; yet even under later, less brutal leaders, people who lived in the truth could be fired from their jobs and jailed (like Havel and Walesa), put in mental hospitals (like Brodsky), or expelled from the country (like Solzhenitsin).
Significantly, Havel writes that the people (both government and private) who would carry out these sanctions against our greengrocer:
will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are always dealt with, that is, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. (55)
Why does the totalitarian system crack down so hard on living in the truth? Havel says because a truthful action, no matter how small, attacks the totalitarian system at is core:
The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated it its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety. (55-56)
Thus, the totalitarian state was in reality a house of cards held together by lies and people accepting those lies. Since the state knew what one act of truth could ultimately lead to, it could not tolerate any amount of truth, no matter how small. Havel writes that the power of living in the truth:
does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in the strength of a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on the soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself. The hidden movements it gives rise to there, however, can issue forth (when, where, under what circumstances, and to what extent are hard to predict) in something visible: a real political act or event, a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure…And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crush of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what straw that will be. (58-59)
Havel’s insights about the power of living in the truth were clearly demonstrated in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. When people in those countries decided to stop living the lie and instead to stand up for the truth, they released a power that brought down seemingly impregnable regimes. Living in the truth had its first unexpected and spectacular success in 1980 with the creation of the independent Solidarity trade union in Poland (where an estimated 10 million people were members before martial law disbanded it in 1981); thereafter, continued living in the truth in the Soviet satellite states throughout the decade led to the swift collapse of all communist regimes there in in 1989. (Indeed, he communist Czech government fell in just ten days.) Likewise, it took only a few years for the Soviet Union to implode after President Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door ever so slightly to truth via his policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”).
Importantly, Havel’s thoughts on the power of “living in the truth” are as applicable today as they were 40 years ago when he first wrote about them. For people in the West today living under oppressive “politically correct” regimes that force conformity to left-wing dogma, “living in the truth” could provide a way of hope. While the tyranny today is more cultural than governmental (though this seems to be changing), and its enforcers tend to be Hollywood, Big Business, academia, Big Tech, and the media, people’s freedoms to think, speak, and practice their religion are under as severe an attack as in the communist block of old and there are real penalties for refusing to conform (job losses, promotions forgone, being “cancelled,” etc.) Thus, living in the truth can still be a valid strategy today. This means that people in the West living under oppressive regimes can advocate for the truth no matter the consequences. What could this look like in today’s world? Taking courageous stands for life, the family, freedom of religion, and the Judeo-Christian worldview. Shouting from the rooftops that political correctness and identity politics are based on lies. Speaking the truth that the LGBT agenda ruins lives. And then living these truths in the real world. While the dominant cultural institutions will come down on people harshly and swiftly for showing that the emperor really has no clothes, and many sacrifices will be required, “living in the truth” just may be able to bring down tyrannical left-wing regimes today like it did thirty years ago. If we can conquer apathy and resignation, and have the hope that Havel had, freedom may just win again.