When power thrives on unspoken fear, bravery is in saying ‘I am afraid’

Most of us aren’t brave. We wouldn’t protest in the streets of Kabul as armed and triumphant clerical reactionaries fingered their guns. I am hardly breaking news when I say that fear makes us keep our heads down and conform. But how we conform makes a world of difference. Oppressive regimes, organisations and political cultures insist that we pretend to go along with them willingly. On occasion, the most courageous way to fight them is simply to admit we are afraid.

Outside abusive personal relationships, fear produces sycophantic subservience in two areas that dominate life in otherwise safe and democratic countries. In most workplaces, managers allow little or no free discussion or criticism. The cases of dictatorial power that have become famous are when managerial megalomania has led corporations to disaster – Enron, for instance, or NatWest. But anyone who looks honestly at their working lives will accept that in many hierarchies most of the time men and women in superior positions demand subservience and, like absolute monarchs, are shocked when they do not receive it.

I am not being too rude to modern managers – public as well as private – when I take the reaction of Jeff Fairburn as symptomatic of a culture that cannot cope with ordinary, robust arguments. The BBC asked the chief executive of the building firm Persimmon to justify a £75m bonus. He could not handle a simple question and he walked out of the interview. Donald Rumsfeld’s list of the limits on knowledge is incomplete. Alongside his “known unknowns”, when we know there are things we don’t know, and “unknown unknowns”, where we don’t know what we don’t know, should sit the least discussed generator of ignorance: unknown knowns. People in subordinate positions know their superiors are making mistakes but dare not let them know it for fear of the consequences.

Their acquiescence is accepted as the price you pay for making a living. I am sure it must have happened, but I have never heard of an employee saying words to the effect of “I will pretend to agree with you, boss, but only because I am afraid I will lose my job if I don’t”. Most workers are too afraid to admit they are afraid.

As with work, so with politics. No one with any hope of advancement in rightwing politics can admit that Brexit was a mistake or that re-engagement with the EU ought to be the overriding aim of British foreign policy. Nor can they say they are frightened to admit it. They live a lie by pretending to be true believers.

On the left, the list of taboos you cannot break stretches to the crack of doom. Once again, no one admits they observe them out of fear of online abuse or of malicious colleagues demanding their dismissal.

There is a cosmetically appealing argument that going along with the lies of the powerful is better for the human spirit than acknowledging your cowardice. Writing in 1978, when communist control of eastern Europe appeared as if it might last forever, Václav Havel described a greengrocer who places the party’s slogan “workers of the world unite!” in his shop window. (You can put any gormless modern alternative in its place.) The greengrocer wants to show that he is an obedient citizen the police should leave alone. But he will not acknowledge the truth by pinning a notice in his window that says “I am afraid of being singled out for punishment”. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window. He preserves his dignity by pretending to believe what the powerful want him to believe. His sense of self-worth would be destroyed by the admission “I am afraid”.

Francis Fukuyama was so impressed with Havel’s passage he used it in The End of History, written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to make his Hegelian argument that the unfolding demand for human dignity, as much as the needs of a modern economy, was pushing humanity towards liberal democracy.

The flaw in the argument is that those who refuse to acknowledge their cowardice are not the only ones whose dignity is preserved. Surprisingly few of those who exercise power want their subordinates to admit that fear keeps them from speaking out. Maybe mafia leaders are happy to hear their followers say that they are too frightened to contradict them. But most people with hierarchical or ideological power are like abusive men who hit a woman one minute and expect her to act as if nothing happened the next. They want everyone around them to pretend that the fear of punishment does not explain their obedience.

Censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists. Organisations or ideologies that can persuade employees or adherents to feign a belief give the appearance to outsiders of being united in a freely chosen purpose. Meanwhile, individuals trapped inside them can be beaten down by the thought that they are alone in their doubts.

Pessimism would appear to be in order today. It’s not just that the Taliban are bringing a new dark age to Afghanistan. Across the world, dictatorial governments are consolidating and expanding their power. The 21st century has not turned out as Havel, Fukuyama and the other optimists of the late 20th century expected.

For all that, the author Stefan Stern, who has spent his career debunking managerial myths, points out that every business pretends to believe in allowing candour and transparency in the workplace. In politics, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and many other corrupt autocracies, organised for the convenience of the local strongman, still pretend to be democracies. To use the cliché, their deceits are the compliment vice pays virtue. They still feel the need to pay lip service to ideals they have no intention of following. We will know that the 21st century is taking a belated turn for the better when virtue stops complimenting vice, and subject peoples and all of those in the west who feel the need to go along with deceits in their working and political lives find the courage to admit they conform out of fear.

Comments are closed.