On Tyranny

I recently read an excellent little book by Timothy Snyder called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

It’s immensely readable, a practical reflection on the times we currently live in and practical, thoughtful actions on helping to ensure our society doesn’t slide further towards tyranny. It’s a collection of twenty essays such as “Do not obey in advance” and “Be reflective if you must be armed” that follow with some practical advice and some historical evidence on how the failure of individuals in the twentieth century to heed these maxims brought about tyrannical governments and police states.

I encourage you to read and reflect on this book. I promise it’s an easy read and well worth it!

In the spirit of Snyder’s book, I’m going to be writing a series of short essays on my own thoughts related to the threats we face and what we can do about it.

Take Responsibility for the Face of the World

I recently attended a corporate retreat where we discussed corporate culture and what we can do to change it. The lesson I took away from that discussion was that there is no “they” who define culture. The amorphous “they” is “we.” We are the ones that define the culture around us.

This expands well beyond office politics. It extends into every aspect of our lives. We create the society that we live in, we create the culture around us, and the things we say and do (or choose not to say or do) implicitly and explicitly helps to shape the culture of our society around us.

We like to think that we would do the right thing in difficult circumstances, but it is much easier to turn away and ignore the situation. “Surely,” we say, “if I saw someone being attacked, something terrible happening, I would stand up and fight against such injustice.”

But how far does this extend? Does it extend to a racist joke by a colleague at a cocktail party? Does it extend to a bigoted viewpoint expressed by a casual acquaintance or a friend? What about a blatantly false “alt fact” espoused by a beloved family member? It’s much easier to let such things slide in the moment. We’re trained and taught to avoid discussing politics in mixed company. Why cause a fuss?

We now find ourselves living in a world where racism, misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and lies are part of our day-to-day politics. Speaking out against these things is essential, even if it means creating an uncomfortable situation. It takes courage, and courage isn’t easy.

Don’t wait for someone else to do it first. Failing to speak out against a view you find distasteful or hateful is tacitly endorsing such a view. And this is dangerous. It shows those around you that you’re willing to accept such views, that they’re “okay with you.”

Here’s a choose-your-own-adventure scenario:

You’ve just met Bob, Juan, and Sally at a dinner party held by a mutual acquaintance. The topic turns to the local news and Donald Trump’s insistence on building a border wall. “About time,” Bob says. “Those illegals are all rapists and drug smugglers.” He looks at Juan. “Not you, of course.”

Juan and Sally look from Bob to you. What do you do?

If you tell Bob that he’s wrong and that his views are unacceptable, skip to Scenario A.

If you wait for someone else to respond first, skip to Scenario B.

Scenario A

“That isn’t true, Bob,” you say. “I would encourage you to investigate the facts from an unbiased source. That kind of viewpoint is bigoted and racist, and I find it unacceptable.”

Bob’s face reddens. He snarls a curse at you, then stands up and storms off.

You look around the table. Juan is visibly relieved. Sally looks after Bob, then turns her attention to her plate.

Scenario B

You glance over at Juan. He’s clearly uncomfortable, but says nothing. Sally smiles at Bob. “I heard all about those Mexicans on the news. Isn’t it just awful? I hope they deport every one of them.” She doesn’t even look at Juan.

I won’t pretend that life is as easy as this little scenario. It isn’t. These kinds of situations are difficult. But the point is that every time we choose Scenario B – for whatever reason – we implicitly endorse the Bobs of the world. Not only does that make Juan feel isolated, it also makes Sally feel safe expressing her own bigoted views.

We create the world we live in, the culture and the society that surround us, and we are responsible for it. Failing to speak out against bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, racism, lies, misinformation, or any kind of intolerant or hateful view is a kind of endorsement of that view. Failing to speak up tells Bob and Sally and Juan and everyone else that, even if you don’t agree with Bob, you believe that his viewpoint is an acceptable one to hold in our society.

The more that happens, the more we will find our politics and our media and our culture treating such views as legitimate ones to have within our society. But the more we speak out and say, No! Such views are unacceptable. They are the foundation of repression and the antithesis of freedom, the more isolated and marginalized such views will become.



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