The idea of tyranny may bring up thoughts of a strong and indestructible system, however, it can crumble from an individual acting out within the truth. In Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny, he explains through lessons how both standing out and believing in truth can prevent tyranny in modern America. Snyder reminds us of great individuals throughout history, like Rosa Parks and Winston Churchill, who were not afraid to stand up for the truth and follow their consciences, despite their views opposing most public opinions. Although On Tyranny focuses on the prevention of tyranny in modern America, its themes of standing out and believing in the truth are applicable to the whole world. This claim is explored in Vaclav Havel’s Political Essay “Power of the Powerless” which is based on the communist regime of former Czechoslovakia. Both of these works illustrate how standing out and believing in the truth play a crucial role in preventing tyranny.
In Vaclav Havel’s Political Essay “Power of the Powerless”, the act of standing out in a tyranny is explored through a small scale scenario. Throughout the essay, Havel recites the story of the greengrocer who stood up against tyranny. In this fictional scenario, it is the expected norm of the system in place that shops display the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite”. The sign itself means nothing to the greengrocer, nor does it express his real beliefs. Despite his personal beliefs, the greengrocer displays the sign because that is how it has been done for years, and failure to display the sign could be seen as treason which may be punishable by the state. The ritual of displaying the sign to the public becomes not a symbol of his admiration for the state, but an emblem of both his submission and degradation by it. The reluctant presentation of the sign by the greengrocer reveals that individuals living within such a system must live a lie in order to hide what they truly believe and desire. By accepting and acting on the lies spun by the state, people confirm the state’s system, fulfill the system, and make up the system.
According to Havel, human beings are predisposed to desire freedom, truth, and self-dignity. If humans’ yearning for freedom and self-awareness cannot be suppressed, then tyranny can never be an indefinite power over people. Now imagine one day the greengrocer chooses to stop displaying the slogans and allows himself to stand out. In his revolt, the greengrocer chooses to step out of living within the lie. He rejects the ideological rituals of the system and its rules. He gives weight to his freedom. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth and stand up for his beliefs. His act will not go unpunished though, as he endures persecution because that is how a dissident in this system has always been treated. The system does so because the ideologies of its self-protection and automatism order for it. Because the principal pillar of the system is living a lie, it does not come as a surprise that the main threat to the system is living the truth.
By living within the truth, the greengrocer’s dissentient action went beyond itself because it shed a light on its surroundings. This act of nonconformity exposes that the tyranny’s system in place is unnatural nor is it based in reality. It shatters the facade, the fundamental pillar of the system, and exposes that living a lie is inherently against our human nature. The concept of living a lie is exemplified in the classic tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The narrative follows two weavers “make” a new outfit for the emperor who wanted the finest clothes available. They say the outfit is invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent, while in reality, they make no clothes at all. When the emperor unveils his new clothes to his subjects, they react as though he was wearing luxurious clothing. The emperor’s subjects are living within the lie, which is why nobody would confess or readily accept the reality of the situation – that the emperor is buck naked. The greengrocer in this scenario would have stated the truth even though it would be against the prevailing opinion. By making this statement, he has allowed everyone to peer behind the curtain to reveal reality as it is. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. In congruence with Havel’s belief that the part of a human being that yearns for freedom can never be fully repressed, tyrannies can never be universal if even one person doesn’t live within the lie of the system. Because those who rule at the top are incapable of controlling every detail of a citizen’s life despite their best efforts – there is space open for individuals who do not wish to conform. It only takes one person that doesn’t conform to knock over the first domino and initiate the domino effect. Therefore, anyone who denies living within the lie of the system rejects it fundamentally and threatens it in its entirety.
People are not dependent on the regime, rather it’s the regime and its system in place that depends on the people, and their willingness to conform. Tyrannies do not have power over people because of some God-given right. Instead, a tyranny is given power by the people. Because the regime and system in place need the validation of the people to have power, if the people deny their power then the tyranny can be overthrown. Since there is power in numbers. The manner in which tyrannies amass their power is reminiscent of a board game. The game is designed by the state and is intended to keep the players playing. The players of the game are the people under the control of the tyranny. The tyranny fabricates a strict rule guide on how to play the game, just like the instruction booklet of a board game. If the players decided to stop playing the game and live within the realm of truth, the game would no longer have power over them. If everyone were to stop playing the game, then the game would end. Much like the example of the greengrocer, his act of nonconformity threatened the whole system because he denied playing the game any longer. Thereby, he denied his consent to give the regime power over himself. For this very fact, People are both victims and pillars of the system. By denying the states lies and living in truth, people automatically differentiate themselves from the mandated system appointed by the state. This fault reveals the fragility of the state since power is only effective as much as citizens are willing to submit to it.
As understood through Snyder’s book On Tyranny, and Havel’s political essay “Power of The Powerless”, actions that stand out and that are based on the truth can prevent tyranny. The example of the greengrocer used in Havel’s political essay exemplifies how believing in truth and standing out work in unison to end tyranny. The greengrocer declines to take part in the ritual of displaying the tyranny’s slogan in his storefront based on the fact that the sign is a lie. His denial of the slogan against the prevailing public opinion makes it an action that stands out from the societal norms. Through the greengrocer’s actions, he reveals to the public that it is possible to live freely within the truth as we inherently are inclined to do as humans. His refusal to give power to empty slogans and useless rituals is him refusing to be a part of the lie that oppresses himself and others. His action takes the power away from the tyranny and gives it to the powerless. As illustrated both of the aforementioned texts, believing in the truth and standing out from status quo both play crucial roles in ending tyranny.