Max R. P. Grossmann

Max R. P. Grossmann

What is your breaking point?

Posted: 2024-03-25 · Last updated: 2024-03-25

One of the least understood aspects of totalitarianism is how it is invisible to the vast majority of citizens.

We all know the parable of the frog being slowly boiled. And there is a lot of insight in that parable. But the truth goes even further. Even if the water is at the full 180°F, a majority may not be aware that much is happening. It is with tremendous ambiguity how we look back at the Germans of World War 2. Did they know what was happening? Even if they did not have first-hand experience of Nazi atrocities, they surely must have known about the oppression, the murder, the imprisonment of enemies of the state?

I have never found a true solution to this puzzle. In my conversations with elders, the overwhelming consensus was that “they did not know.” OK, so they may not have known about the concentration camps. But they surely must have known about the generalized oppression?

Inside of totalitarian systems, there is still competition for power. A well-known issue of dictators is that oppression feeds a vicious cycle in which real-life problems are not transmitted to the dictator for fear of punishment. To remain in power, a dictator must strike a balance between his basest instincts and the annoying necessities to provide a stable system.

We need not discuss here how revolutions happen, but any government—totalitarian or not—is required to provide some basic necessities and perhaps some bonbons to citizens in order to stay afloat. In this light, the dictator emerges as an entrepreneur, catering to the populace's demands in exchange for tacit compliance. Even without full awareness of their regime's atrocities, citizens acquiesce to them for the sake of protection, sustenance, and a sense of nationalistic pride.

Given that one can live a nice life, there is nothing in human nature that would force you to go seek out information about what your government is doing. It is irrational to know. Is it not interesting that we do not require people to know, even though we accept their claims of ignorance? The ignorance is endogenously generated.

The vast majority is therefore in the dark about what exactly is going on. Dictatorships can only crack down on minorities. The majority's ignorance and silence stem from a deliberate lack of curiosity.

What about these minorities, then? Can't we see the plight in their eyes?

This is the age-old issue of empathy and sympathy. All that needs to be said here is that empathy and sympathy are almost entirely impossible if there is hatred. Governments therefore have an incentive to not just lock away or destroy those considered undesirable. Such acts can still invite backlash. Instead, hate needs to be cultivated. Hate enables members of the majority to acclaim their dictator's actions.

Hate is the catalyst of destruction. And hate is not restricted to profound expressions of dislike against another ethnicity or religion. Hate can encompass any dimension of human life. Hate can proliferate against those with different eye colors, those who celebrate other football clubs, those who do not draw certain conclusions from facts.

If you hate those who hate others, you too are a hater. You might well become a willing participant in the destruction of others. Hating them does not undo their hate. The only winning move is not to play. Only through a conscious rejection of hate can one truly recognize tyranny and injustice, irrespective of personal affiliations.

While the overwhelming majority of citizens in a dictatorship is not able or willing to see its totalitarian nature, some are able to do so. They may have rejected hate for religious reasons. They, themselves, may have been targeted in a small way, and they may have been enabled to sense the upcoming slaughters. They may be close to those actually slaughtered.

We do not know what makes this sense of danger more prevalent in some. But we know that they will be harassed, called names and ostracized. They may quit their jobs and leave all their belongings behind. They may emigrate to other countries. It must seem fanatical and irrational to the satisfied majority.

What is your personal breaking point? When are we able to decry actual totalitarian tendencies in government without being laughed at? Never, probably. The harbinger of doom, much like an economic entrepreneur, operates on foresight, risking derision for the sake of preservation. But unlike the economic entrepreneur, the early warner gains by avoiding losses, not seeking profit. In the counterfactual where the early warner is wrong, he is typically much worse off than if he had not acted. But if he is right, he is the one to avoid utter evisceration. The early warner may be called a querdenker and nutjob, but he is just making a subjective assessment that you may disagree with. And in making these assessments, no-one would agree more with the fact that sometimes the best option is still bad than this entrepreneur. That you cannot see the danger shows at most that you are in the majority of benefactors; of those who look the other way when the undesirables are eliminated.

Every day, we bet that we will make it. We should not laugh at those warning us about impending totalitarianism. History reminds us that yesterday's alarmists are today's survivors—and among us, there may yet be those who will live to tell the tale of escape from the clutches of tyranny. Sic semper tyrannis.