Writing on Arc Digital, Tomás Sidenfaden says that we watch with horror what China is doing with its “social credit” system of implementing state control over culture and society, but we ought to be aware that the US is doing the same thing, in its own way. Excerpts:
China’s draconian censorship efforts appear a world apart from the freedom of speech protections tenuously preserved in American society. But as the two world powers evolve the similarities are becoming just as striking as the differences. While their social designs diverge, their intended results do not: both seek to shrink the Overton Window in favor of what the governing class considers a healthier, more orderly, more moral discourse.
In China, censorship isn’t just limited to critiques of the government. It also includes what the ruling party considers moral rot. Underage drinking, drug use, violence, and hyper-sexualized content get scrubbed from media and film. This top-down social engineering finds its shape in the country’s new social-credit system, which punishes undesirable behavior like canceling dinner reservations or jaywalking by restricting travel rights or access to (financial) credit.
Far from feeling threatened by this development, ordinary Chinese seem to actually welcome it. A 2017 Ipsos poll revealed that 47 percent of the population regards moral decline as the country’s biggest threat and an astonishing 87 percent believe the country to be heading in the right direction. According to the same poll, only 43 percent of Americans feel their country is heading in the right direction, and most would argue we are undergoing a moral reckoning. (It is important to note that a cross-national comparison of survey results is complicated by China’s punitive monitoring of criticism.)
The pattern is predictable: targets are identified based on their statements or positions, their offenses are amplified on social media, and then a litmus test is presented.
Companies overwhelmingly respond by capitulating. Universities respond by de-platforming speakers, or students drown them out with protest. Though universities have historically been the bastions of rigorous intellectual debate, they are also, like businesses, adapting to their new boundaries. Media entities, especially mainstream ones, more often than not succumb to calls for eliminating perspectives that fall afoul of the approved discourse.
In Stalinist Russia, citizens were encouraged to report their neighbors for “counter-revolutionary” thought or behavior. Mere accusations were often enough to ensure the banishment of the state’s “enemies” to gulags to die of torture, starvation, and disease.
The United States is not Soviet Russia or Maoist China. Neither is modern-day China. Nevertheless, both share outcasting as a potent social and economic weapon. The ruling class in Russia and China was of course the government. In the U.S., where the government is regularly refreshed, our ruling class is comprised of those who define our accepted modes of discourse through the institutions—many of them non-governmental—that they control. While no one serious has suggested the transgressors of today be sentenced to hard labor in a gulag (though certainly some non-serious individuals have), it is alarming how accepting many have become to inflicting on these transgressors a direct hit to their careers as just punishment for their wrongthink. Today’s mob scans and censors the citizenry like past regimes have, except businesses and academia are the enforcement mechanism. This dynamic will continue to evolve.
I mentioned yesterday that the BBC’s plan to invite its employees to wear a badge that identify themselves as LGBT “allies” is a form of social control designed to identify and marginalize those who are not “social creditworthy.” Wearing that badge does not signify anything other than that you hold the correct opinions, or are too afraid of being seen as holding incorrect opinions, as defined by the cultural elites.
It’s horrifying what China is doing, but I can understand why so many people there find it appealing. The country has undergone a staggering amount of social change and dislocation within the past few decades. People can’t be blamed for feeling insecure. At some point in the middle of the last decade, I went to a conference in Dubai on the media in the Arab world. A prominent Lebanese journalist — a liberal — explained to me why so many in the Arab world regarded the media with suspicion. It wasn’t simply a matter of authoritarian political and religious figures wanting to clamp down on dissent. He said that Arab societies were undergoing the kind of change that took a century to unfold in the West, all in a very short period of time. And not only that, they were dealing with that as societies that are quite rigid and conservative to begin with. The rate and content of change that we in the West perceive as normal is not remotely normal to most people in the Arab world. This is the context within which the Arab public’s attitude to mass media has to be understood, he said.
Heaven knows this is no defense of what China is doing, but it is necessary context within which we should attempt to make sense of it.
But in the West? It is undeniably the case that we are disintegrating, but it ought to scare the hell out of us that we are developing a system — without government control, mind you! — within which people can lose their jobs, even their careers, for having expressed a single opinion despised by the progressive mob. This is exactly what people raised under communism, but now living in the West, keep warning us about: it’s coming here, and it’s not being imposed on us by the government, but emerging all the same.
Let us think, and think hard, about the fictional greengrocer in Czech anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel’s essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Excerpt:
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.
We all like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who would have the courage to be Havel’s greengrocer, if put to the test. We all flatter ourselves. Me too. You’d better start thinking hard about the greengrocer, because sooner or later, you’ll be put to the test by the American social credit system.
UPDATE: I cite the greengrocer story so often that I forget that not everybody knows it. In The Benedict Option, I summarize the lesson of the rest of the greengrocer story:
Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”— and it’s going to cost him plenty.
He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful:
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.
Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system—but he has preserved his humanity. And that, says Havel, is a far more important accomplishment than whether this party or that politician holds power (a fact that became painfully clear during the debasing 2016 U.S. presidential campaign).
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”