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

Really perceptive column by my Observer colleague, Nick Cohen.

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 to argue that the unfolding demand for human dignity was pushing humanity towards liberal democracy.

“The flaw in the argument”, says Cohen,

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.

Spot on. Great column.