A few weeks ago I gave a speech at the fourth International Crisis Summit in the Romanian Parliament. Below you find the text of the speech I prepared and the videorecording of the speech I actually gave. I usually don’t prepare a speech, simply because for some reason I never stick to the plan. Ultimately, I always express the words as they come on the spot and at the moment. This time was no different – the text below and the actual speech are different. That being said, I hope you will read it. In the beginning I repeat some things about totalitarianism that you might be familiar with if you’ve listened to my interviews. But the rest of the text is all about the perversion of political discourse in our society and the need for a new type of politician who leaves propaganda and rhetoric behind and re-appreciates truth speech.
Dear members of the Romanian parliament,
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
As some of you might know, I wrote a book, titled The Psychology of Totalitarianism. It is about a new kind of totalitarianism that is emerging now, a totalitarianism which is not so much a communist or fascist totalitarianism, but a technocratic totalitarianism.
I have articulated my theory on totalitarianism on so many occasions. I will only present the gist of it here and move on to a problem which is particularly relevant for an address in a political institution such as this parliament: the perversion of political discourse in the Enlightenment tradition.
Here is in a nutshell what I articulated on totalitarianism throughout the last years: totalitarianism is not a coincidence. It is a logical consequence of our materialist-rationalist view on man and the world. When this view on man and the world became dominant, as a spontaneous consequence, a new elite ánd a new population emerged. A new elite that excessively used propaganda as a means to control and steer the population; and a population which lapsed more and more into loneliness and disconnectedness, both from its social and its natural environment.
These two evolutions, the emergence of an elite that uses propaganda and a lonely population, reinforced each other. The lonely state is exactly the state in which a population is vulnerable for propaganda. In this way, a new kind of masses or crowds emerged throughout the last two centuries: the so-called lonely masses.
People fall prey to mass formation to escape a pervasive feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness, induced by the rationalization of the world and the ensuing industrialization of the world and the excessive use of technology. They merge together in fanatic mass behavior because this seems to free them from their lonely, atomized state.
And that is exactly the big illusion of mass formation: belonging to a mass doesn’t liberate a human being from its lonely state. Not at all. A mass is a group that is formed, not because individuals connect to each other, but because each individual separately is connected to a collective ideal. The longer a mass formation exists, the more solidarity they feel for the collective and the less solidarity and love they feel for other individuals. That’s exactly why in the end stage of mass formation and totalitarianism, every individual reports every other individual to the collective, or to the state, if they think that other individual is not loyal enough to the state. And in the end, the unthinkable happens, with mothers reporting their children to the state and children their parents.
The lonely masses distinguish themselves in several respects from the physical masses of earlier times: they can be much better controlled, they are less unpredictable than physical masses, and they last longer, in particular if they are constantly fed by propaganda through mass-media. The creation of long lasting lonely masses through propaganda was the psychological basis for the emergence of the large totalitarian systems of the twentieth century. Only if a mass formation exists for decades can it be made the basis of a state system.
The emergence of lonely masses led to Stalinism and Nazism in the beginning of the twentieth century and now it might lead to technocratic totalitarianism. I described the psychological processes involved in the emergence of lonely masses on many occasions, and I won’t repeat it here.
Today, here, in the Romanian parliament, a political institution, I address politicians. I want to tell you that politicians have a particular responsibility in these times of emerging totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt said, is a diabolic pact between the masses and the political elites. Political elites need to contemplate –scrutinize the ethical qualities of their speech. There is something wrong with political discourse. This is what I intend to say: political discourse is perverted.
For instance, we got used to the fact that politicians, once they are elected, never do what they promised to do in their election speeches. How far are we removed from political virtue as described by Aristotle. For Aristotle, the core of political virtue was the courage to speak the Truth, or, to use the Greek term, Parrhesia, bold speech, in which someone says exactly this what society doesn’t want to hear, but which is necessary to keep it psychologically healthy.
I am not so much accusing individual politicians here; I am addressing political culture in general. And even more, I am talking about a perversion that is inherent to the entire tradition of Enlightenment. Our society is in the grip of a specific type of lying, a kind of lying that is historically speaking relatively new, that emerged for the first time after the French revolution, when the religious view on man and the world was replaced by our current, rationalist-materialist worldview. What am I talking about when I refer to this ‘new kind of lie’? I am talking about the phenomenon of ‘propaganda’.
Propaganda is everywhere around us. Public space is saturated with it. Recent years have illustrated that abundantly, during the coronacrisis, during the Ukraine crisis, and now, even more clearly, during the coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict on both mainstream and social media.
It is not that I do not understand the motivation of those who choose for propaganda. They often start from good intentions. Or at least: somewhere, they do believe in their good intentions. Read the work of the founding fathers of propaganda, such as Lippman, Trotter and Bernays. They believe that the only way for the leaders to keep control in society and to prevent society of lapsing into chaos is propaganda. The leaders cannot overtly impose their will anymore to the population. Nobody would accept that within a materialist-rationalist society. Hence, the only way to make the population do what the leaders want, is to make them do what the leaders want without them knowing that they do what the leaders want. In others words: the only way to control the population is through manipulation.
The people in favor of propaganda will argue that we can never tackle the challenges of climate change and viral outbreaks through democratic means. They will ask: ‘Do you think people will voluntarily give up their cars and flying holidays? To escape disaster, we need technocracy, a society led by technical experts, and to install technocracy, we need to mislead the population, we need to manipulate them into technocracy’.
First of all, I want to tell you that I don’t believe technocracy is a solution to the problem. But that’s not what matters most. Let me tell you something: to try to create a good society for the human being through manipulation, is a contradictio in terminis. The essence and core of a good society is exactly the ethical quality of public discourse. Man, in the end, essentially is an ethical being, and to pervert man’s speech is to pervert man itself; to pervert political speech is to pervert society itself.
To give up sincerity in order to create a good society, is to try to build a good society by giving up immediately, from the beginning, the essence of a good society (!). Truthful speech is not a means towards an end, it is the end in itself; sincere speech is what makes us human and humane.
This is crucial to understand: propaganda is not a historical coincidence, it is a structural consequence of rationalism. If you consider the psychological structure of our current society, it’s fair to say that propaganda is the major guiding principle. In a remarkable way, the pursuit of rationality during the tradition of Enlightenment didn’t lead to more Truthful speech, as the founding fathers of this tradition believed. Science would replace questionable religious and other myths; society would finally be organized according to reliable information instead of subjective conjectures. Now, a few centuries later, this turned out to be an illusion. There has never been as much unreliable information as now in public space.
The materialist-rationalist view on man and the world, in a strange way, rather led to the opposite of what it expected. As soon as we started to conceive the human being as a mechanistic, biological entity, for whom the highest attainable goal was survival, it became rather unfashionable to try to speak the Truth. Speaking the Truth, the Ancient Greeks knew that very well, doesn’t maximize your chances on survival. The Truth is always risky. ‘No one is hated more than he who speaks the Truth’, Plato said. Hence, within a materialist-rationalist tradition, speaking the Truth is something stupid to do. Only idiots do it. That’s how the fanatic pursuit of rationality led us astray, straight into the dark wood of Dante, ‘where the right road is wholly lost and gone’.
This materialist-rationalist view on man and the world – why do we actually cling to it? It loves to present itself as the scientific view on man and the world. Let me tell you that this is nonsense. All seminal scientist concluded exactly the opposite: in the end, the essence of life always escapes rationality, it transcends the categories of rational thinking. To name only one major scientist: in the preface of a book of Max Planck, Einstein claimed that it is a mistake to believe that science originates from supreme logical-rational thinking; it originates from what he called a capacity for ‘einfühlung’ in the object one investigates, which means as much as ‘a capacity to empathically resonate with the object you are investigating’.
Rationality is a good thing and we need to walk the path of rationality as far as possible, but it is not the end goal. Rational knowledge is not a goal in itself; it is a stairway to a kind of knowledge that transcends rationality, a resonating knowledge, the kind of supreme intuition the martial arts of the Samurai culture aimed for throughout their technical training. It is at that level that we can situate the phenomenon of Truth.
This brings us closer to an answer to the question: what is the remedy to the disease of totalitarianism? Can we do something about totalitarianism? My answer is simple and straight: yes. The powerless do have power.
Propaganda induced mass formation is a fake, symptomatic solution for loneliness. And the real solution lies in the Art of Sincere Speech. My next book, which I am writing now, is all about the psychology of Truth. Truth, by definition, from a psychological point of view, is resonating speech, it is speech which connects people, from core to core, from soul to soul, speech that penetrates through the veil of appearances, through the ideal images we hide behind, the imaginary shells we seek refuge in, and reconnects the shivering and disconnected soul of one human being to that of another human being.
Here we observe something crucial: sincere speech is the real cure for loneliness – it reconnects people. As such, it takes away the root cause of the major symptom of our rationalist culture – mass formation and totalitarianism. And at the same time, sincere speech also inhibits this symptom in a more straightforward way. It is well known that, if there are some people who continue to speak in a sincere way when mass formation is emerging, the masses do not go to the ultimate stage where they start to think it is their duty to destroy each and everyone who doesn’t follow the totalitarian ideology.
At every moment we chose to speak out in a sincere way, no matter where this happens, in a newspaper or a television interview, but equally well in the presence of only one other person at the kitchen table or in the supermarket, we help to cure society from the disease of totalitarianism.
You have to take this literally. Society, as a psychological system, is a complex dynamical system. And complex dynamical systems have the fascinating characteristic of so-called sensitivity to initial conditions. To put it simple: the smallest changes in one minor detail of the system, affect the entire system. For instance, the smallest change in the vibration pattern of one water molecule in a boiling pot of water, changes the entire convection pattern of the boiling water.
Nobody is powerless. And hence, every single one of us is responsible. Each and everyone who speaks a sincere word and succeeds in truly connecting as a human being to another human being, in particular a human being with a different opinion, deserves to be mentioned in the books of history, much more than a president or a minister who engages in propaganda and fails to show the courage to speak sincerely.
The more I study the effects of speech on the human being and on human living together, the more hopeful I become and the more I see that we will overcome totalitarianism.
We shouldn’t be naïve when we talk about the Truth. Endless are the atrocities in history committed by people who believed they possessed the Truth. Truth is an elusive phenomenon; we can enjoy its presence from time to time, but we can never claim it or possess it.
Sincere speech is an art. An art we have to learn step by step. An art we can progressively master. That’s exactly why I started workshops on the Art of Speech – workshops in which we practice that art in the same perseverant, disciplined way as any other art is practiced.
Practicing this art implies that we overcome our own fanatic convictions, and even more, our own narcissism and ego. Truth speech is this kind of speech which penetrates through what I call ‘the veil of appearances’. To practice it, you have to be willing to sacrifice your ideal image; your public reputation. That is exactly what the Parrhesia in Ancient Greek culture meant: speaking out, even if you know that those who find their stronghold in the world of appearances will target you.
Truth-telling can make you lose something. That is for sure. But it also gives you something. To be more psychologically precise: Truth speech makes you lose something at the level of the Ego and win something at the level of the soul. I am quite fascinated by the way in which sincere speech leads to psychological strength.
I think Mahatma Gandhi provides us with a splendid historical example. A few years ago, I started to read his autobiography. I did so at the moment I started to realize that the only efficient resistance against totalitarianism is non-violent resistance. Of course this only applies to internal resistance, resistance from within the totalitarian system. External enemies can destroy totalitarian systems from without. That’s for sure.
But internal resistance, as I mentioned, can only be successful if it is non-violent in nature. All violent resistance will rather speed up the process of totalitarization, just because it is always used by the totalitarian leaders to create support in the masses to destroy each and everyone who goes against the system. Once I realized that, I became interested in what Gandhi had to say in his autobiography.
I was happily surprised to see the title: Experiments on Truth. And from the first pages, I learned that for Gandhi, the core and essence of non-violent resistance is sincere speech. His entire life, Gandhi tried to improve the sincerity of his speech. He did so in a simple, almost childish and naïve way, wondering every evening how sincere he had spoken that day, where he had lied or when he could have spoken more accurately or sincerely.
And here is something important: in the beginning of his biography, Gandhi mentions something magnificent. He says: I actually had no major talents. I was not handsome as a man, I didn’t have much physical strength, I was not intelligent at school, I was not a good writer and I was not talented as a speaker. But he had this passion for sincerity and Truth. And this man, devoid of any major talents, but with a passion for sincere speech, this man did something even the strongest army in the world couldn’t do: he kicked out the English of India.
The better you start to see the almost endless horizon of possibilities offered by speech, the more you realize: it are words that rule the world. The human being can use words in a manipulative way, as pure rhetoric, indoctrination, propaganda, or brain-washing trying to convince the Other of something it doesn’t believe in itself. Or it can use words in a sincere way, trying to convey something to a fellow human being it feels inside itself. That is the most fundamental and existential choice human beings face: to use words in one or the other way.
Dear politicians of Romania and abroad, this is what I want to tell you today: it’s time for a metaphysical revolution. And you are ought to play a major role in it. The series of crises our society goes through are nothing else than a metaphysical revolution, which, essentially, boils down to this: the switch from a society that functions according to the propaganda principle to a society that is oriented towards Truth. We need a new political culture, a culture that re-appreciates the value of Truth Telling. We need a new political discourse, a political discourse that leaves the shallow, hollow rhetorics and propaganda behind and speaks from the soul, from the heart; we need politicians to become true leaders again, leaders who lead rather than mis-lead the population.
Source: Mattias Desmet