Tearing Down the Tyrannical facade
by Jeff Jacobsen 2011
"One must endure the unwisdom of one's masters." [Scott, p. 17, quoting The Phoenician Women, by Euripides]
The wave of public protests that began this spring of 2011 in Tunisia, dubbed the Arab Awakening, has spread to several countries, including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Each of these has a popular uprising to alter or replace the current tyrannical government. Through some particular spark, a large portion of the population was emboldened to publicly protest against the severe restrictions imposed on the people by their overly-long and overly-demanding leadership. Each of these leaders handled the protests by similar deadly means, invoking similar excuses against the complaints on the street.
Each of these leaders had been in power for decades. Had the people suddenly decided all at once that they couldn't take it anymore? The social restrictions had not suddenly gotten worse. Why, then, since the people had suffered under their leader for so long, yet maintained a silent tolerance, did they begin en masse demanding major alterations of their government? Why were these complaints bottled up for so long? What brought them out?
James C. Scott's book Domination and the Arts of Resistance helps to answer why citizens of a government that subdues the will of its people appear from the outside to be willing participants or at leat tolerant citizens. In fact, an alternate opinion actually circulates through the populace. This "hidden transcript" as Scott calls the unseen popular political opinion (and Vaclav Havel calls "living within the truth"), is successfully covered by the "public transcript" which is the viewpoint that the tyranny wants the public and the world to view as the real narrative of the country. There are, then, three "transcripts" or political viewpoints of the country. The public transcript is the fake, the one the elites create and promote as the "real" face of the country. This view generally proclaims that the country is united behind the tyrant, is happy with its government, has little or no dissension within, is powerful and stable. The second is the "hidden transcript" which is what the citizens talk about when it is safe. When citizens are away from the prying eyes and ears of the government, be that security cameras, police, spies, or the true believers, they may then feel free to speak about what they really believe of their government. Since discussion of this actual transcript goes against the public transcript, any reference to it in public brings punishment. Only the public transcript is supposed to actually exist.
The third transcript is the elite transcript. This is what those in power speak about when THEY are not in the public eye. Since the public transcript is wishful thinking on the part of the elites rather than reality, they too must speak in a certain restricted way except when they are out of range of camera or citizen. Thus, both the citizens and the elites in public and in sight of each other promote and pretend to live in the public transcript, while in their private, safe conversations, they speak differently, more truthfully. "The show is all actors, and no audience" says Scott. [p. 59]
Why does this happen? Why is everyone promoting and living in a facade? Vaclav Havel, before he became president of Czechoslovakia, was a dissident under communist rule. Because he spoke the hidden transcript, and helped form Charter 77 to try to get others to speak the hidden transcript in his country, Havel was often jailed or harassed by the government. To explain the staying power of the public transcript, Havel wrote of a grocer in communist Czechoslovakia. This grocer had a poster in the window of his shop, "workers of the world, unite!" Why, Havel asks, did the grocer put this poster in his window? Because it represented his acceptance of the public transcript. The government asked him to put this in my window, and he had done so. He knows it represents the facade of this government. He knows by putting it in his window that he is forwarding this facade. But he declares by this poster that he doesn't want any trouble. I will play along in order to get along, he thinks.
The grocer knows that there are penalties for being anything other than enthusiastic toward the public transcript. He could be reprimanded, fined, lose his job, or if he displayed any dissent, perhaps even go to prison.
The grocer could well be your average citizen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and the other countries before the Arab Awakening. The average citizen wants freedom. He wants freedom from the facade of the public transcript and freedom to speak the hidden transcript, which is the real one. But he also knows that the government wants only the public transcript to see the light of day. And the government, through its police, spies, and all the other extensive resources at hand, has the power to enforce strict adherance to the public transcript. What should he do, then? Put the poster in the window, or not?
"The practice of domination, then, creates the hidden transcript," says Scott [p. 27]. The choice of the grocer is to decide whether to live as things are and have long been, under domination and living within a lie, or to risk the wrath of the tyranny by speaking the truth as he sees it. Speaking the truth is an assault on the tyrant's domination. Even the lowly grocer is a threat because one lowly grocer could entice others to follow suit. This could lead to a group or mob, which gains power through power in numbers and collectively reinforces the exhileration of speaking what is actually on their minds to others and to the powers that be. Individuals are easily subdued. Motivated crowds are not. To prevent anyone from veering off the public transcript, rulers "make subordinates entirely dependent upon their superiors, effectively isolated from one another, and more or less constantly under observation." [p. 128] Even one person, like the child who stated "the Emperor has no clothes!" is a threat to the public transcript and thus to the tyrant.
The grocer does have some options. Instead of directly attacking the public transcript, he can accuse the elites of not llving up to the public transcript themselves. For instance, if the elites have promised a minimum wage but never established one, the elites themselves are not living up to the public transcript. While this type of dissent is still dangerous, it is less so since it is a complaint made within the "reality" that the elites have established. He could also express solidarity with those struggling against a tyranny in another country, thus safely demanding freedom from repression, even though it isn't his own repression. The grocer could also hide his speech indirectly, such as in a play or a painting with dual meaning, where he could insist that the innocent meaning is his real intent, while the tyrant is stung by the second meaning.
Tunisia was the first country to rise up this spring. A young man named Mohammed Bouazizi had been mistreated and downtrodden by his government, enough to make him set himself on fire. The incredible frustration demonstrated by Bouazizi hit a chord with many other Tunisians, who decided that they, too, had had enough. They went into the streets to peacefully protest for better government and more freedom. The government responded by beating, tear gassing, and even shooting protesters. Many were arrested and tortured. Still people protestsed. The regime was put in a dilemma; they could not legitimately say that their country was united behind the tyranny at the same time as the huge demonstrations agasint the government were going on. There was a limit to the number of protesters they could jail and kill without collapsing the entire society. Also, there is a limit to a tyrant claiming legitimacy at the same time he is torturing and killing his own people for simply demanding better government. After several weeks of protests and many needless deaths, President Ben Ali resigned.
Egypt followed next with a very similar outline. President Mubarak, who had been president for 42 years, capitulated after 9 weeks of protests. As of this writing, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya are in a struggle to free themselves from longtime tyrannies. The tyrant, of course, wants to remain. His regime claims that the protests are outsiders stirring up trouble. This facade is to maintain the fiction that the citizens are united behind the dictator and would have no reason to seek change. Any dissension, therefore, cannot come from within.
It is clear that the subjects of a tyranny privately chafe at the chains the public transcript traps them in. As the Arab Awakening shows, people desire freedom from repression enough to risk even being killed at a protest. If you decide to speak out and want to break through the public transcript, you have a large audience that already understands the issues, is on your side, and perhaps is even willing to to risk working with you. But can you know that if YOU risk confronting the regime that others will also come forward? That is difficult, and generally speaking the answer is no. In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi , who set himself on fire, apparently felt that no one would back him up. But his death is considered the tipping point that led to the downfall of Ben Ali's 23-year reign. Havel blames the public transcript for hiding how ripe the citizenry might be for a revolt. "And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be. This too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex reaction preventively, even the most modest attempts to live within the truth." (Havel, p. 42)
We remember the times when revolution toppled the tyrant. Those brave ones who were crushed before any movement could form behind them are mostly forgotten or even unknown.
We have not yet solved the grocer's dilemma. Should he put the poster in his window? The solution is an individual decision. There is no formula. He has to decide whether to keep his head down and survive in the lie he and his country are living. Or he can choose to risk and stand up for his conscience. It is not an easy nor a light decision.
Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, M.E. Sharpe, 1985. Johne Keane, editor
James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: The Hidden Transcripts, Yale University Press, 1992