What is totalitarianism?

We could opt for an analytical definition, but it is also interesting to define totalitarianism by its symptoms. You can tell the world around you is becoming totalitarian if you observe the following:

  • Being yourself is illegal
  • Everybody lies (but it is not common knowledge, so that nobody says the emperor is naked)
  • Everybody agrees, political decisions are unanimous, in a single-party fashion
  • The government mandates changes to the language
  • People are being jailed for having said, or thought, something
  • People are encouraged to report their neighbours, colleagues, and relatives for speakcrime, or thoughtcrime. This was a favorite sport under the French Terror, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the Vichy regime.
  • When you start thinking objectively, you inevitably experience a feeling of fear. You have to choose between repressing your thoughts, and being a coward, or putting your social status, material welfare, physical integrity, or life in jeopardy.
  • You live in a contradiction: society is imposing contradictory obligations which make life unlivable. It is as though somebody deliberately tried to make you crazy.
  • As a result, double standards prevail. Because of X’s status, membership in  a priviledged group, ability to corrupt others, or sheer luck, X gets away with what could send Y in jail.
  • People devote considerable attention to protecting themselves from government arbitrariness. Innovation and risk-taking disappear.

It is one thing to recognize these patterns in well-identified totalitarian societies, and another to observe them in ours. I suspect that whenever such symptoms appear, cognitive dissonance operates full speed. After all, aren’t we supposed to be the “free” world and to have won the cold war, we can’t possibly behave like the horrendous regimes mentioned above…

The new French sexual harrassment law, inspired by the US one, makes it a crime to “impose upon somebody, in a repeated manner, speech or behaviour with a sexual connotation which create an intimidating, hostile or offending situation”.

Some well meaning organizations have complained that the law is not enough, because the poor victim might have to prove the repeated and sexual character of the offenses. God forbid that the accuser might have to prove her (or his) allegations!

The law has been passed unanimously by the French senate. I have failed to find a single blog entry disagreeing with it, altough the late French writer Philippe Muray, in his time, was appalled that one could get away so lightly with the abolition of the presumption of innocence principle.

Essentially the law makes it illegal to court somebody in your workplace: Whether or not what you do constitutes illegal sexual harrassment is up to the “victim”. If she is offended by your courting, or finds you “intimidating”, then she just has to file a complaint with the police and you can be sent to jail for two years. There is no objective measure of what “intimidation” or “offense” is, contrary to burglary, homicide or rape. The new law defines a crime so that there is no objective way to establish that it has taken place. In other words, it is a Kafkaian nightmare.

Note that the law applies even if the “perpetrator” is not in a hierachical position vis-à-vis the victim. Also, people are actively encouraged to report to the police any potential sexual harrassment that they might observe. It is obvious — there are many precedents in US academia — that sexual relationships between consenting colleagues are going to be criminalized.

On the one hand people spend more and more time in public education, postponing marriage; once they enter the workforce they spend most of their time at the workplace, which is where they most naturally meet other people (this need not be the most efficient technique but this is the way it is in contemporary society). On the other hand, the sex ratio at the work place is roughly even, due to the rise in female participation in the last few decades. Thus the workplace increasingly is a mating market at the same time. The law attempts to make life unlivable by shutting down the most important mating market that we have.

The government says that I am better protected by this law. It is a lie. By removing essential legal protections (for which people have fought since at least 1214), the law makes me vulnerable to arbitrary accusations, it gives ill-intended people the power to send me to jail on the grounds of unprovable and undisprovable claims. Nobody needs a law to protect them against offenses, innuendos, or intimidation. This is part of life. I am being innuended, offended, and intimidated all the time. I am strong enough to cope with these things that are not the government’s business.

Incidentally, by the standard of this law, I am sexually harrassed all the time. I cannot go to the movies without seeing sexually explicit scenes. Ditto with provocative theatrical or operatic productions. Ditto with advertising and art, especially state-subsidized contemporary art which often indulges in obscenity. Not to mention compulsory sex education at school which matches all the law’s criteria. A sex-obsessed society which makes sex connotations illegal is a contradiction. The contradiction will be resolved by the double standards: some will get away with “sexual harassment”, and others pay dearly for the same actions.


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