"When all think alike, then no one is thinking"
- “Climate change” can only be overcome if we stop using fossil fuels and develop green energy. Anyone who disagrees is a climate denier or climate sceptic – and a conspiracy theorist.
- Racism in the Western world is systemic and can only be overcome when all white people acknowledge they are racists and privileged. Anyone who disagrees is a racist.
- Anyone who disagrees with government-approved “science” about COVID-19 is a science denier and a conspiracy theorist.
- Russia is guilty of an unprovoked invasion of the Ukraine. Anyone who disputes this is an enemy of the “Ukrainian people” and a Putin stooge.”
So begins Australian philosopher, Wayne Cristaudo’s essay “Prime Facts, Closed Minds and the Russian-Ukraine Conflict”. Cristaudo asserts that the Western political and ruling classes have increasingly come to insist that, for the survival of the planet, or democracy, or world peace, the masses must subscribe to a package of "truths". Discussion and debate have been banished. Groupthink is in.
Is he right? We, at Democracy Alert, believe it’s a position worth considering.
Ideology as Truth
Cristaudo argues that the tool for achieving total conformity of speech, thought and action is ideology – the acceptance of a priori and unassailable prime principles or ideas which dictate how facts are to be interpreted. He believes that our ideas about how the world works “have been reduced to an ethico-political position which is so definitive, so absolute, that it can brook no dissent.” Political and societal issues now come with a truth status that must be locked in. “Anyone who publicly objects to any of them is considered to be spreading misinformation or disinformation."
Cristaudo concludes that the simplistic, black and white, good versus evil way in which we view the Ukraine war is "a symptom of the West's loss of mind."
Fear and Science as Tools
Dutch philosopher, Christian W.K.M. Alting Von Geusau, goes one step further. In his essay, Totalitarianism and the Five Stages of Dehumanization, he suggests that we are actually sliding down a slippery slope towards totalitarianism - a system of control that ultimately tolerates no individual freedom or independent thought.
Like Hanna Arandt before him, Alting Von Geusau asserts that the growth of totalitarianism is greatly facilitated by a destabilizing or fear provoking crisis – something like our COVID pandemic. But, its success also depends on authority figures presenting a clear solution. Science, he argues plays an important role in the solution, except, that only one scientific perspective is to be allowed.
Alting Von Geusau cites the following as evidence that during the pandemic we began a noticeable slide towards totalitarianism: vaccines as the only solution, endless lockdowns, vaccine passports, suppression of scientific data and debate, censorship and the public shaming of critical voices,
We would add, specific to Canada, our Prime Minister's use of words like racist and misogynist to describe the unvaccinated, the freezing of donations to the Truckers' Convoy, and the totally unnecessary invocation of the Emergency Act as a prelude to shutting down their protest.
Citizens or Subjects?
The concerns raised by both Cristaudo and Von Geusau are not as radical as you might think. Twenty seven years ago, in his seminal work “The Unconscious Civilization”, Canadian philosopher, John Ralston Saul, warned of the way that our democratic society was being hijacked by what he called corporatism, a form of groupthink, with an emphasis on ideological adherence.
Saul argued that serious decisions were being made less and less through democratic participation and discussion of different points of view. Instead, they were increasingly the result of behind closed doors negotiations among elite groups who had the ability to wield power and shape public opinion.
The public's role was to acquiesce to the elite's world view - a world view whose articulation by political leaders would be reinforced by academic experts. The mantra that "Only the specialist really knows what's right." meant that doubt was not to be permitted.
Saul predicted that ultimately, if unchecked, this hijacking of participatory democracy by political and economic elites, backed up by cherry picked academic experts, would lead to “passivity and conformity in those areas that matter and nonconformism in those that don't."
In short, we were in danger of becoming subjects, not citizens.
The Way Forward
Implicit in all the above arguments is the suggestion that at some basic level people prefer to accept prevailing dogma rather than take the time to fully diagnose an issue. Given the dangers that poses for democratic governance, how do we change that?
Cristaudo argues that the way forward must include a return to the Socratic method of reasoned argumentation and public discourse before taking a stance on any issue. A first step would be “to establish whether those who claim to have knowledge know what they are talking about.”
But, that’s easier said than done given the corporate capture of media, including, here in Canada, the CBC. Even on the Internet it is becoming increasingly difficult and time consuming to find perspectives that counter the dominant opinion. Plus, it's so much easier emotionally to go with the flow.
To conclude, behaving like a subject instead of a participating citizen might conceivably be fine if we could guarantee enlightened leadership in the ilk of Plato’s philosopher-kings.
But isn’t it more likely that, if the current trend continues, the passivity and conformity that Cristaudo, Von Geusau, Saul and Lipmann lament will lead us, facilitated by surveillance capitalism, towards a dystopia more in line with Brave New World or 1984 - or The Great Reset.
That's our concern at Democracy Alert