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Silent Democracy

David Cromwell

'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 western intervention 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 human rights.’

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 competitiveness.

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


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