10 December 2015

On being sucked into authoritarianism

Dileepa Lawrence-Hewa, someone who occasionally sends me comments on articles and directs me to interesting articles and ideas, wrote to me this morning. He recommended a book, Wayne Dyer’s ‘The sky’s is the limit’.  Dyer, he says, observes that life is by and large describable as conforming to others’ expectations.  He calls it, Dileepa says, ‘being sucked into authoritarianism’.

Now this reminded me of a book whose title I’ve mentioned many times when discussing ‘power’: Philip Gourevitch’s ‘We regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’.  It was published in 1998 and refers to the massacres that took place in Rwanda around that time.  The telling line was this: ‘Power consists of making others inhabit your version of their reality’.

Dileepa’s email made me realize that Gourevitch’s definition can have applications outside the classical associations of power, i.e. the state, the military, use of force, visible subjugation and hierarchies.  Authoritarianism is not only about keeping people out of decision-making processes, imposing arbitrary laws and creating and forcing people to inhabit a culture of impunity.  There is also a soft and non-intrusive kind of control which persuades a different kind of inhabitation, a quiescent, this-is-how-it-is kind of residency.

There is no god or a vile set of big bad men out there plotting the dimensions of residency, but society does get structured in ways that are more likely to produce the outcomes preferred by the powerful.  The structures as well as those located in arm-twisting positions within them define the parameters of resistance for the most part.  Rupture is not impossible, but remains a rarity.  While laws and guns can obtain obedience, the more insidious instruments of subjugation are those which are so goes-without-saying that few will even question why or how they came-without-saying. 

It is also called taking things for granted, in the worst sense of that term.  We inhabit realities which we believe or are led to believe are not only unchangeable but are proper or at least the best they could be.  Or we throw our hands up in resignation, convincing ourselves that even our best efforts would not change anything.

I am not saying that all conformities are enslaving; a certain code of ethics, for example, can be necessary, some can argue, to maintain social coherence and keeping volatility out. It would be quite alright if it was a conscious choice, but for the most part people are ill-informed and less given to reflecting on the ‘things-as-they-are’.  It is one thing to make sure you don’t step on tyranny’s foot because you know the consequences and quite another to give that foot a wide berth because ‘that’s-how-it-should-be’. 

If you take some time to analyse the last 100 acts, i.e. from the expression that materialized on face at a given moment to choice of tie and the use of certain words over others, you will know that we inhabit ‘rule-universes’ as though it was second nature to do so in the ways we do.  

Not all authoritarians arrive with a big placard and a comprehensive communications campaign claiming tyranny and demanding acquiescence on this account.  The use of one word instead of another, the choice of voice over silence or vice versa in specific moments, the preference for this friend’s company and not that of that friend’s, none of these things are totally innocent although we might brush such claims off as ‘nonsense’.  The most pernicious of tyrannies are not those which we do not have the strength to overthrow but those which we embrace on account of ignorance and sloth. 

Do we pause to ask ourselves why we picked up a particular brand of soap from the supermarket and not another?  Are our life choices really ours?  Are we really who we are or are we products of a striving to appear ‘acceptable’?  Do we live our lives or the lives that others want us to live? 

I am not making a case for non-conformity, by the way.  I see nothing wrong in being what Sunil next door wants me to be, but only if I believe that’s who I want to be, makes me happy and feel wholesome.  Too often, though, I feel that we do the easy thing of uncritically accepting residence in the moulds that are made for us, instead of being who we are.  This is the way that tyrannies become entrenched, the way in which ideologies creep into our systems and we end up affirming them without even realizing that this is what we do. 

Again and again, I arrive at the teaching of Siddhartha Gauthama.  Reflection. Reflection. Reflection.  Especially on ‘self’, that unreal and unrelenting, apparently inescapable prison and in the final instance the wall of illusion that has to be systematically broken down.  The tyrannies that we inhabit, the realities defined by others that we take residence in, these things are only part imposed. Much of it is of our making.  We are our greatest lovers, most pernicious of enemies.

I am the tyrant that suppresses me, the guard that watches over my incarceration, maker of my sorrows, maker and breaker of chains.  I think Dileepa would agree.

This was first published on December 9, 2009 in the 'Daily News', to which paper I wrote an 'everyday column' titled 'The Morning Inspection'.  

malindasenevi@gmail.com
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