'It's sociologically interesting, though scary,’ said the actor
Anthony Sher in a recent interview, ‘that you can be inside an evil
system and be somehow unaware of it.’ South African by birth, Sher
was talking about the former system of apartheid. But what if the same
could be said of our ‘liberal-democratic’ western society.
Consider this. Millions of people have died, and many more millions
have been condemned to lives of misery and torture, as a result of
in Iran, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua,
Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere. Lars Schoultz, the leading academic scholar on
human rights in Latin America, found, for example, that us aid ‘has tended
to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their
citizens . . . to the hemisphere's relatively egregious violators of fundamental
The rationale is not hard to divine. Exploitative conditions that benefit
local elites and western corporations require violence to pacify the
discontent of impoverished majorities. Pragmatic need is more than sufficient
to ensure that these facts are generally either unknown or dismissed
out of hand. Corporations are naturally not keen to discuss the role
of terror and murder in imposing ‘development’ on the Third
World. Nor are their allies in government. Nor is the ‘free press’—itself
made up of corporations, owned by yet bigger enterprises in the global
economy, and dependent on corporate advertisers. It is not that the
facts of western-sponsored terror and violence are not true, they simply
can't be true under a system which regards itself as essentially benign.
And so they are ignored, or dismissed as delusions.
Take another example of our silent ‘democracy’. Climate change.
According to the London-based Global Commons Institute, there will be
more than two million deaths from climate change-related disasters worldwide
in the next ten years. Damage to property will amount to hundreds of billions
of dollars. But where are the in-depth media debates exposing the chasm
between the magnitude of the climate threat and the pitiful political
response to it? No wonder that Ross Gelbspan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist, once wrote that ‘news stories about the warming of the
planet generally evoke an eerie silence’.
The majority of us are complicit in this combination of silence and absurdity.
We remain silent in the face of global poverty and environmental threats
when we should instead be speaking out. ‘It’s not my responsibility’, ‘I’ve
got enough on my plate’ or ‘I’m just doing my job’ are
typical responses. A favourite one is ‘my personal opinions should
not compromise my professional position’. In other words, one must
adhere to the organisation’s official position on any potentially
controversial topic. But what does such a stand actually mean? Where and
how can the line be drawn between the professional self and the personal
self? The disjunction is profoundly unhealthy, echoing R D Laing's concept
of ‘the divided self'. Madness, in other words.
The renowned German psychologist Erich Fromm analysed the psychology
of obedience in modern corporate society. The ‘organization man’,
he wrote, ‘is not aware that he obeys; he believes that he only
conforms with what is rational and practical.’ In modern society,
to be rational and practical means to conform to a system that rewards
obedience to power: the elite few—transnational corporations and
international investors—who benefit from free trade and deregulated
capital flows. Meanwhile, their political allies in government are tripping
over themselves to strangle public services in pursuance of international
As sober professionals, we are not supposed to step outside our specialised
fields of knowledge to criticise the private interests that pollute precious
ecosystems, destroy communities, abuse human rights and threaten the global
climate system. We are supposed to restrict our public statements to topics
that will not reflect badly on our employers or upset funding sources.
Such ‘neutrality’ ensures that today's headlong rush to environmental
devastation and social injustice proceeds apace. In truth, neutrality
is impossible: to do nothing is to vote for disaster.
When the American linguist Noam Chomsky was challenged to explain what
qualified him to comment on us domestic and foreign policy, he replied
simply, ‘I'm a human being’. For the rest of us, it is all
too easy to hide our humanity behind a cloak of professional ‘objectivity’.
Marking a line in the sand, we declare: ‘Here is the limit of my
professional expertise. Beyond this I have no authority’. We are
reluctant to rock the boat or sound off ‘in a personal capacity’ for
fear of breaching our employment contracts.
Adopting such a role means that we therefore acquiesce in research and
education moulded to fit a corporate-shaped economy; that we allow one
in six British children to live in poverty with barely a murmur in the
press or in the public sphere; and that we refrain from challenging our
political paymasters about the western-imposed economic sanctions which
are killing 5000 young Iraqi children every month.
How can we reconcile these ghastly facts with the widespread belief in
the goodness of our liberal-democratic west? We cannot. ‘Our boasted
civilisation,’ said the writer Jack London, ‘is based upon
blood, soaked in blood, and neither you nor I nor any of us can escape
the scarlet stains.’ Far from living in a benign democratic society,
we are living under a monstrous system that promotes power and profit
above concern for justice and life.
How much do we really care? How much does it matter to us so long as
we can get on with our job, playing safe, getting paid and climbing the
promotions ladder? If some kind of stand needs to be made, do we leave
it to someone else? Do we keep quiet and get on with things as they are? ‘The
truth,’ warned the Soviet poet Yevgeney Yevtushenko, ‘is replaced
by silence, and the silence is a lie.’ It's time we stopped lying.
David Cromwell is a researcher at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton and co-founder of the Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century.
last updated 3 October, 2008