December 20, 2011 7:54 pm

Spontaneity or slogans: the lessons of Václav Havel’s greengrocer

Vacuous rhetoric traps the leaders as well as the led. They are inhabitants of a world whose assumptions are false

Václav Havel, the first and only president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, died last week. The central figure of his famous dissident essay, The Power of the Powerless, was a greengrocer with a placard in his window saying: “Workers of the World Unite!” Havel asked an apparently simple question: what is the purpose of this display?

The shopkeeper is not motivated by an intention to communicate his enthusiasm for unity of the workers of the world. Nor was his superior seized by such desire. And the leaders of the authoritarian system in which the sign is displayed know that their power would not long survive unity of the workers of the world. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone who sees the sign gives attention to its substantive content.

The real meaning is not conveyed by the printed words. The greengrocer’s intention is to signal conformity and avoid trouble. Havel translates the slogan as: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.” That is what the mourners of Kim Jong-il are saying today. But, Havel observes, there would be much more resistance to a sign that made such a statement explicit. Even in a totalitarian state, people seek some dignity.

We might console ourselves that this sloganising is characteristic of their totalitarian societies, not our liberal democracies. But are we sure? Are corporate mission statements, or motivational displays in offices and factories, really spontaneous demonstrations of sincerely felt sentiments? Or do people say these things or hang them on the walls with the same indifferent resignation as the greengrocer? Is there much distinction between official exhortations to drive well, recycle conscientiously and to celebrate diversity, and official exhortations to redouble efforts to build a workers’ paradise? Would a visitor from Mars find it easy to distinguish commercial advertisements from political slogans? Is the capitalist assertion that the client always comes first more honest, or more informative, than the socialist proclamation of the unity of the workers of the world?

Thirty years before Havel, George Orwell identified the corrupting influence of discourse based on the repetition of pre-packaged phrases. A corrupting influence not just on language but on society itself. He described the speaker who “has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine”, observing: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.” We often hear such speakers at business conferences and on political platforms.

Havel also emphasised the mechanical nature of the process of effusion. “Part of the essence of the post-totalitarian system,” he said, “is that it draws everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realise themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favour of the system.” The empty exhortation of “workers of the world unite!” conceals the reality of the power structure that lies behind it. But the vacuous rhetoric traps the speaker as well as the hearer, the leaders as well as the led. “Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects,” wrote Havel. They are inhabitants of a world whose assumptions are false, and self-descriptions fraudulent.

Havel in the 1970s, like Orwell in the 1940s, denounced the debasement of political language. But the cancer spread. The private sector mastered the art of speech without thought through management jargon. These techniques were then reimported into politics. The interval in which Clement Attlee and Dwight Eisenhower made speeches in the conversational language of ordinary intelligent people proved brief. Political discourse has reverted to strings of sound bites, the process Orwell described as “gumming together long strips of words, which have already been set in order by someone else”. Vacuous slogans are today found as often on the walls of public sector offices as in the business sector.

Orwell insisted that the meaning should choose the word, and not the other way about. For Havel, in the more desperate environment of communist Czechoslovakia, the issue was “the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love”. We miss the unflinching intellectual integrity of these great writers.

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