The manager of a professional office places on the wall of the break room, among the fliers and announcements, a poster with people of different races working together on a project and the slogan: “Celebrate Diversity.” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of racial diversity among employees? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a celebration might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of office managers never think about the slogans they put on their walls, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our manager from the enterprise headquarters along with the pens and coffee packets. He put it on the wall simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration on the break room wall; someone might even accuse him of racism. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life; it is “socially responsible,” as they say.
Obviously the manager is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan on the wall from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the manager XY, work here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the manager’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the manager from potential complaints. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the manager’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the manager had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The manager would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation on the office wall, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the manager to say, “What’s wrong with celebrating diversity?” Thus the sign helps the manager to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the office manager, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in diversity being celebrated, to the highest executive, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about inclusion. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.
The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.
[This post was inspired by Vaclav Havel’s “greengrocer’s sign” metaphor from his 1979 essay “The Power of the Powerless.” See my comment in the thread below for a clarification on the authorship and the original language of the above excerpt.]