by Daniel A. Kaufman
In his essay, “See Something? Don’t Say Anything,” Dan Tippens has broached an essential subject. For a liberal society to survive, a healthy space must be maintained between the state and the citizenry. That space is filled with the elements of civil society, by which I mean the voluntary associations and affiliations we have with one another: family; friends; associates; club members; parishioners; etc. Maintaining that space requires, as Dan put it, “citizen solidarity,” by which he means a base-level toleration for one another (even in the case of substantial, mutual dislike), as well as a strong disinclination to turn our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors over to law enforcement or sue them in civil court, save for the most serious breaches of the social contract.
Dan is certainly right. As we know from both the scholarship and literature of totalitarianism, a successful totalitarian regime relies upon the undermining and ultimately, the destruction of civil society and the atomization and mutual alienation of its citizens that follows. It is for this reason that such regimes invade our private spaces, subvert our relationships, and turn us against one another – brother against brother; lover against lover; friend against friend; child against parent; neighbor against neighbor; colleague against colleague – the result being that each of us finds him or herself isolated and defenseless against the predations of the State. As Hannah Arendt described it:
If we stick to the image of the pyramid, it is as though all intervening layers between top and bottom were destroyed, so that the top remains suspended, supported only by the proverbial bayonets, over a mass of carefully isolated, disintegrated … individuals.” (1)
Dan examined this issue in microcosm, his example being that of a person at the University of Miami, who decided to cross a sizable, outdoor parking lot in order to demand he put out his cigarette, on threat of reporting him to Security. But he might have chosen any example in which someone, when confronted with behavior that is off-putting or in some way offensive, runs to an official authority, rather than dealing with it him or herself. The point is that the woman broke what few bonds of solidarity she and Dan had as members of the same voluntary community, insofar as they otherwise were strangers to one another. And you can be sure that if the shoe ever came to be on the other foot – if on some other occasion it was she who was doing something that violated some minor rule or other, and it annoyed Dan – the ill will she had created would be duly reciprocated, and in that moment, the official authority in question would come to have a power over them both that it otherwise would not have had.
What seems like mere pettiness, then, is in fact, extremely dangerous. We create antipathy towards one another, one petty act at a time, until we suddenly find ourselves in our current situation, in which it seems like everyone hates each other and law enforcement and other official authorities are welcomed everywhere and involved in everything, at our own request. Indeed, it’s gotten to the point where one routinely encounters official communications that are indistinguishable from fictional, totalitarian propaganda and which evoke no discernible outrage on the part of the public.
Sign Issued by the Connecticut Department of Transportation
A sign in Terry Gilliam’s dystopic film, Brazil.
A sign issued by the British Transport Police
Another sign from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
In Orwell-style dictatorships – Nazi Germany; Stalinist Russia; Maoist China – this sort of thing is effected by brute force and the threat of it, but Aldous Huxley showed us how it could also happen non-violently, by way of operant conditioning and social manipulation. Citizen solidarity in the Brave New World is destroyed not by way of children having their parents arrested or lovers turning one another over to the authorities, but through a meticulously cultivated shallowness, engendered by conditioning children into a hedonistic ethos that is constantly reinforced, to the point that the very terms used to describe the various elements of civil society, ‘family’, ‘mother’, ‘marriage’, ‘best friend’, and the like are either incomprehensible or treated as a sort of foul language.
The primary force behind civil disintegration in the West today and especially in America – the thing that is being used to convince us that we should break solidarity with one another and turn to state and other official authorities at every turn – is a bogus conception of “safety,” with which people are being conditioned and reinforced with as much dedication and vigor as the hedonic ethos is imprinted upon the citizens of the Brave New World. And it is one that extends not just to the threat of criminal violence, but to well-being more generally construed, and especially personal health.
That a persistent, deep-seated conviction that we are unsafe has taken root, in contradiction of the plain, demonstrable fact (as indicated by federal statistics) that violent crime is at its lowest point in three generations and that we are the safest we’ve been since the 1960’s; that we see the widespread acceptance of lunatic notions like that we live in a “rape culture” or that “cities are burning” (the latter being a point Donald Trump used to great effect in the last election); that a constant anxiety about our health is sustainable, despite the fact that people in the modern, industrialized world are living longer and healthier than anyone at any time in human history; all of this demonstrates the power not just of propaganda – and there is plenty of it – but of appealing to human fears and engendering perceptions of weakness and helplessness on the part of ordinary, common people. It also demonstrates the dangers of a certain kind of hyperbole, which, when employed so often as to transform ordinary language and common meaning – as has happened with words like ‘safe’, ‘harm’, ‘violence’, ‘aggression’, and the like – has the capacity to self-condition, with no external intervention. The citizens of Orwell’s tyranny of suspicion and Huxley’s tyranny of pleasure are conditioned by the tyrants and their agents. In our budding tyranny of safety, we condition ourselves, through our use of a normalized, yet wildly hyperbolic language.
Dan also was quite right to suggest that this crucial lesson regarding citizen solidarity must be learned at a young age, if it is ever to take root, which is why for today’s aspirant authoritarians, there is such a concerted effort to train children to always look to official authorities for the resolution of their problems, rather than to take care of them, amongst themselves, and to convince them that they are always unsafe. In all but a handful of schools, campuses are closed, hallways and classrooms are under video surveillance, and students are always in the presence of an adult authority. In most schools around the country, students are required to bring their personal disputes to official “conflict resolution” bodies, staffed by fellow students and overseen by teachers and administrators. One finds a ubiquitous, on-campus police presence that just a few decades ago only would have been found in the most dangerous of inner-city schools, and somewhat creepily, it begins at a very young age, so that children will become accustomed to seeing police around them all the time. I was profoundly disturbed one day, years ago, when I dropped my daughter off at her elementary school and saw that they had a police officer there, at the front door, greeting every student who entered with a smile and a lollipop. Nothing had happened that day or week or month. He was simply there to normalize his presence in the minds of six, seven, and eight year-old children.
The citizens of the Brave New World do not have to be coerced, because they “love their servitude.” In our own “See Something, Say Something” world, we do not have to be coerced to rat out our family, friends, or neighbors, because we love our safety. In either case, the result is the same. Citizen solidarity is broken, civil association rots, and we are left as isolated individuals, mutually antipathetic and exposed before the State.
- Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” (1954) reprinted in Between Past and Future (New York, Penguin Books: 1977), p. 99.