Back in 1946, the world still spinning from the downfall of fascist Nazi Germany and the ascendance of the communist Soviet Union, George Orwell observed that “Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.”
The terror and suppression required to force humanity to conform to the dictates of totalitarianism were at the forefront of thought right after the end of World War Two. Orwell was not alone in worrying that the efforts made by madmen to mold minds to serve the needs of nations that controlled their citizens through pervasive surveillance and a crushing intellectual orthodoxy continually reinforced by propaganda were the gravest threats facing the world.
Fast forward to America in 2020.
We are in a very bad place today. If we are unable to be truthful with ourselves and others regarding our daily experiences and thoughts due to our fears of being deemed a heretic, criminal, or enemy—a process now more terrifying than at any time in history because we can be instantly condemned and convicted by a worldwide audience on social media—our only available life strategy is a dull and disheartening compliance with groupthink that robs us of our individuality. Dissent within a totalitarian system—or one similar to it in effect— can today destroy lives, careers, and relationships with a speed and thoroughness that would have garnered the admiration of the Grand Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, so many Americans now avoid any word or action that might signal even the mildest disagreements with those who are now in power.
If you believe that I am exaggerating the problems we now face as a nation, consider the broad reach of Cancel Culture in government, businesses, schools, and so many other institutions in our nation today. To express an unsanctioned or unwelcome thought in a legislative body, business meeting, or classroom is to be branded for all time to come as evil, ignorant, or both. To be an unbeliever is to be an outcast who must be condemned by all. Free thinkers are now malcontents, and those with any sense of self-preservation learn to nod, smile, and keep very quiet in order to avoid censure, job loss, or having their social media accounts shut down by Big Tech censors who feel it is their sacred duty to crush any thought deemed intolerant—which would be humorously ironic were it not so reminiscent of the kind of horrors George Orwell warned us of in novels such Animal Farm and 1984.
I believe the most obvious example of this phenomenon is to be found in our increasingly unreliable political polling. Those who claim to be able to discern our true thoughts and intentions are routinely astonished and dismayed by how far their predictions end up deviating from ballot box realities. A recent analysis that tried to explain why polls have been underestimating the number of Republican voters over that past few election cycles found that the prevalence of liberal orthodoxy in many schools and workplaces has made many fearful of expressing their viewpoints due to fears of reprisal.
With certain viewpoints now guaranteed to cost one a job, course grade, promotion, fellowship, or a friend, an incredible degree of self-censorship has become the plague of of 21st century America—and some studies show that over 60% of Americans are now afraid to freely voice their opinions due to fears of legal or extra-legal retribution.
This pervasive fear of one another—and the equally pervasive distrust of our basic institutions that it clearly signals—is deadly to our democracy and only serves to further embolden those censorious souls who seek political gains for themselves by silencing the voices of their opponents. It is little wonder that we find ourselves trapped in a toxic intellectual monoculture that, unsurprisingly, has come more and more to rely on public shaming to eliminate any remaining diversity of thought and opinion within government, academia, and the news media—all of which are now seen as enemies of their core values by a great many Americans who are distrustful of the power they wield over their lives and livelihoods. Political polarization is only worsened—and conspiracy theories more prevalent—when free and open debate is stifled by laws, regulations, and daily practices inimical to our Constitutional guarantee of free speech.
Totalitarian regimes rely on the silent obedience of the masses, and this is made much easier to impose when technology now provides terrifying tools for both monitoring the populace and curbing their ability to speak. Communist China has been at the forefront of developing systems of public and private surveillance to create “social credit” scores for each citizen that determine the rights and opportunities available to every individual throughout their lifetimes. An unfavorable social credit score will block an individual from university acceptance, the opportunity to live in a certain neighborhood, a coveted job, or a license to operate a business, so the consequences of failing to follow the party line are both harsh and an obvious disincentive to anyone who might contemplate disobedience.
Whether restrictions on thought and action are openly codified into law, as is the case in communist China, or imposed by an increasingly intolerant elite consensus, as is the case in America today, the outcome is the same: fear that crushes the human spirit and only serves to entrench hatreds of one another. The inevitable outcome of these systems is a stifling lack of diversity in thought and belief that imprisons minds in order to serve the interests of those in charge of enforcing the shaming, censorship, and punishment necessary to promote their private vision of social harmony and cultural conformity born of their supposedly enlightened political and legal controls.
That the promised utopian world typically identified with the programs promoted by Socialist Democrats does not comfortably co-exist with the actual wants and needs of many average Americans is, as we are clearly told each day, of little real consequence to those doing the promising. Given that the ideas and opinions of the dissenters are thought unworthy of consideration because they are obviously uneducated and foolish (whether they are called Deplorables, Neanderthals, or worse by their elite masters hardly matters), they can be comfortably ignored by those comfortable with exerting their power and control because they have an absolute—and fanatical—faith that their own values are the only correct ones.
The well-worn Red State and Blue State paradigm that today dominates so many of our political and social debates might no longer be of much utility as a way of viewing our nation and its problems. The issue that should be our main concern is whether shunning, banishing, and punishing Americans into obedience to an ideology that seems often disconnected to any notion of reality is threatening the democracy we all must cherish and protect. Whether this discussion is even possible today due to all the informal yet powerful controls on speech and writing already in place is a question we have yet to answer, but failing to address the soft totalitarianism that is now pervading so many corners of our country will leave America vulnerable to more effective—and destructive—controls on what we are free to think and express in the very near future.