What we stand to lose when we don’t stop to listen.
This past weekend, John Carpay made an unfortunate connection between the rainbow flag and Nazi and Communist symbols. This week, Peter Stockland explores the meaning of dialogue, and what we stand to lose when we don’t stop to listen.
The skies are raining predictable spoiled fish on the head of Calgary lawyer John Carpay for committing the grievous 21st century political sin of making a maladroit analogy.
In a weekend speech to a Rebel Media gathering, the founder of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms sought to make a point about the irrelevance of external symbols in discerning totalitarian impulses. Okay. Except the three examples he used were the Communist hammer and sickle, the Nazi swastika, and, uh-oh, the rainbow flag of the gay rights movement. As Sesame Street taught us, one of these things does not belong with the others.
I know John Carpay so I know John Carpay knows the now ubiquitous pink-red-orange-yellow-green-turquoise-indigo-violet flag of what was once called gay liberation bears absolutely no historical or ideological comparison with Auschwitz or Stalinist mass murder. Indeed, Carpay quickly apologized for his inept linkage, which, of course, did not stop the CBC from pouring on the whoop-whoop by getting activists to frantically turn the outrage crank. Other media eagerly joined the game.
Ah, well, it’s what frequently passes for journalism these days. All who express themselves publicly know the risks and learn, too, not to rely on a friendly audience as a firewall against a media roasting. Despite over-the-top calls for him to be kicked out of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, John Carpay will survive, no doubt chastened but still functioning. I’m not concerned here with either defending or attacking him further. He needs neither from me.
What I am concerned about is the way civil dialogue is being deeply damaged by these persistent dumps of diss and counter-diss. Amid the wreckage of what is euphemistically called “controversy,” something even more crucial than the habit of speaking to each other decently will be lost. It is the opportunity to explore whether an error itself can contain ideas approaching truths, small or large, whose exploration could benefit us all.
In Carpay’s case, for example, rather than simply subjecting him to the usual barrage of epithets, how much more helpful would it have been to ask: why would an intelligent, educated, engaged individual say such a thing? I mean not only “what did he really mean?”I mean where did whatever he thought he meant come from? How could he conceive a point so poorly that its worst impoverishment was of plain fact?
For the nose-on-your-face fact is that what began long ago as the “gay liberation movement” has remained, as a liberation movement, five decades on, democratic and peaceful. Yes, there were yahoos in the late 1980s and 1990s who formed a group called ACT-UP that embarrassed itself by behaving badly. And, true, there were intemperate displays at the early International AIDS conferences during a time of panic. But whether we agree or not with what gay rights advocates have advocated, it is untenable to deny that they’ve won every inch of substantive political ground by unwavering, irenic practice of the legislative, judicial and socially persuasive arts.
The sexual transformation of Western societies was brought about, by and large, by tens of thousands – millions? – of mobilized democrats who strategically outraged, then subsequently outsmarted, outworked, outtalked, out-organized and outflanked the opposition. If there’s a strategic compare and contrast to be made with other historical movements, it’s certainly not with Hitler’s Nazis or Stalin’s Communists. With one glaring caveat, it’s with the strategy of the old Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which launched a revolution to liberate Eire from British oppression during the first quarter of the 20th century. The parallel might seem at first blush quirky gusting to bizarre but in historical terms is as apt as any I’ve come across.
In a quintessentially Irish acronym stew, the IRB came before the IRA which grew out of a merger with the ICA that came into being when the northern UVF sparked creation of the southern IVF, which, of course, ultimately split into the INV. The actual name of each group mattered less than lining up the alphabet properly to help chase the English back across the sea.
It must be stressed that the Republican Brotherhood, true to its Fenian origins and in complete contrast to gay liberation, was always committed to necessary physical force. Yet its most strategically effective period was one of quiet, non-violent, influential placement of its advocates into every critical sector of Irish life from language, sport, the arts, education, journalism, the Church, the police/military apparatus, and obviously political organizing.
It’s precisely the model used by the sexual transformation movement as it diligently put its players in place for the peaceful and democratic achievements of the past decades. Thus long-prepared, when it came out, so to speak, it rapidly left its ideological adversaries in a position of perpetual defensiveness. It did not need (much less practice) violence. (It probably didn’t need hyper-saturated rainbows, either, but there we are.)
It is one thing to catch a population cohort off guard. It’s another to persistently force it into the persistent uncertainty of stumbling backwards, unsure of its bearings or the survival of its voice. And here is a potential truth worth gleaning and examining in John Carpay’s recent rhetorical misstep. The point he insists he was trying to make, before he stumbled into the pitfall and subsequent media barbecue, was about the nature of totalitarianism. But the painfully clumsy words he grasped for described replicas of only one kind of totalitarianism. He was, though, illuminating different kinds of totalitarianism. It’s what I believe baseball aficionados call a forced error. It doesn’t make the error any less erroneous or egregious. It does help explain its genesis.
What the LGBTQ movement risks – I bold face/underscore the word risks – becoming party to has nothing whatever to do with the totalitarianism of gulags and death camps. Nor does it have anything to do with sexuality or even partisan predilection right, left, centre. It has to do with what Czech President Vaclav Havel long ago called the danger of “soft totalitarianism” that he saw supplanting fascism and communism in the East Bloc.
In his brilliant and perpetually re-readable 1978 book-length essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel distinguished hard totalitarianism from what he called post-totalitarianism, or what we might think of as “soft” totalitarianism. He early on stresses that by post-totalitarianism, he does not mean totalitarianism no longer exists. It has simply shifted shape, letting go of no longer necessary elements and fully defining the totality of the way people under it are capable of acting, speaking and, above all, thinking.
Classical hard dictatorship signals its totalitarian presence with the midnight knock at the door and disappearance into basement prison cells. The softer “post” form exists almost entirely in the minds of those subjected to it. Havel did much more than make the distinction. He warned that the very openness of Western societies could leave them most vulnerable, through their intellectual circles and behavioural structures, to soft post-totalitarianism.
How does “soft” totalitarianism function in daily life? Havel, a playwright first of all, illustrates it with the example of a shopkeeper who puts a “workers of the world unite” sign in his store window. It’s a curious thing to do. A world of united workers is inherently antithetical to his economic self-interest. More, he can’t truly care what the workers of the world do because his shop occupies only a particular street in a particular place where he spends his life.
Around his particular shop, though, are his neighbours. He has to care what they might think even if they never actively notice his sign. His sign becomes more than a sign. It paradoxically acts as a form of camouflage so that he does not stand out or attract notice. After all, the very absence of a sign affirming approved opinion might be a sign that he is a secret enemy not just of workers, but of the total world in which he and his neighbours live.
Here, soft totalitarianism descends like a dove with rabies when he begins to care most about what his neighbours, and indeed all passers-by, think he thinks. The totality of life – Havel calls it the “panorama” of existence – becomes thinking about what others might be thinking he thinks without caring about the nature or reality or truth of his thoughts and theirs. And along comes the fear of the consequences of getting it wrong. Fear fires up the nervous system to obey. Where’s that wretched sign? Put it in the window as a sign of what it’s best to think should thought because of the thought that others think it’s what to think.
And now you are John Carpay (there can be more than one). You give a speech in which you misspeak to a friendly crowd that understands your mistake – or in a few woebegone instances applaud the misunderstanding as right-thinking – until you are confronted by evidence of what the world, or at least the world that journalism creates in its own image, thinks you think. It’s frightening. Epithets – hate monger, homophobe, fascist, the whole bit – rain down on you like spoiled fish. What do you think you’ll think the next time you’re asked to share your thoughts? Reach for that wretched sign, and put it up fast.
Now flip the sign over and consider its presence from the other side, too. You’re an activist in the LGBTQ movement, justifiably proud, though if you’re young enough probably not entirely aware, of the political ground your antecedents gained for you through their smarts, their commitment, their hard work, their capacity to practice democratically and peacefully the political, legislative, and socially persuasive arts. You, following their efforts, have won on all substantive fronts.
What do you want to do with that victory? Celebrate it by forcing the opposition remnant to stumble backwards, collapsing in on itself to exist only as a series of private grievance circles? Savour the gratification of firing up obedience by fear? Bluntly: how close do you want to go to risk being party to ushering in Vaclav Havel’s world of soft totalitarianism?
I do not mean the last as a rhetorical question. I mean it as a serious question for all people of good will to explore in the joyful hope of finding some truth, large or small, that might benefit us all. Because when we fail to engage those truths, even in those we know are wrong, we reduce them from citizenship, from full humanity, to wavering abstractions of adversary, enemy, unworthy. Worse, we do so not through the blunt force trauma of the blood-soaked State, but through the passive limitation of their capacity to think beyond what they think they’re permitted to think. We do not need recourse to images of the gulag or the stalag to understand what that means for freedom.
Here’s where Irish history is instructive again. An essay I recently read on the 1921 parliamentary debates to end the Anglo-Irish War focused on the bitter point of contention over whether to accept Dominion status like Canada or fight on for a full Republic.
Anti-Treaty Republicans argued Dominion status only perpetuated Irish slavery to the Crown. A pro-Dominion partisan countered by shooting back: “Are people in Canada slaves?”
A century later, we Canadians can proudly say we are even freer now than then, having shrugged off old and pernicious inequalities that restrained us from living bodily as we wish. But as George Orwell argues in “Politics and the English Language,” we need not be physically enslaved to be slaves of our habits of thought.
Such habits are at the heart of Vaclav Havel’s insights into soft totalitarianism. For if our thoughts are always on the thoughts of what others might think we are thinking, we are bound to do worse than just make signs proclaiming things we do not truly believe. We will begin to refuse to distinguish between rain and fish out of the rationalized fear that someone might think we are secret enemies of water.
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