The Power of the Powerless: Part 4, Each Helps the Other to Be Obedient

In Václav Havel's essay “The Power of the Powerless” we begin to "live within the lie" of a power system's ideological justification when we begin “accepting appearances as reality." We live within the lie when we accept "the rules of the game” of the world we are living in.

And when we do this we “become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.”

That's a critical piece of the puzzle. When we accept the game--the status quo--we make it possible for the game to go on. 

And importantly for Havel, we don’t really need to believe the lie. We just have to live within it, quietly and uncomplainingly.

Havel making this point:
They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
When we do not dissent from the status quo we become both the victims and the instruments of oppression. In accepting the prevailing worldview and the ideology that supports current power arrangements we “create through [our] involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on [our] fellow citizens.” We learn “to be comfortable with [our] involvement, to identify with it as though it were something natural and inevitable…[and we] come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality.”

In our conformity we stigmatize dissent and non-conformity. An outcome of this conformity and stigmatization of non-conformity is succinctly described by Havel:
Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient.
In his essay Havel has us imagine the plight of a greengrocer. Early in the essay we see the greengrocer displaying a poster in his store window declaring some nationalistic banality similar to a “God Bless America” bumper sticker. As Havel notes, such a poster or bumper sticker attracts hardly any notice or commentary, precisely because it is so universally accepted as the ideological background of national life.

And therein lies the insidious nature of the prevailing ideology, the source of its power in creating social conformity.

By functioning largely in the background as the unquestioned assumption ideology creates the illusion of universal assent, which creates the unseen force-field of normative social pressure.

We've helped each other become obedient.

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