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The term “gaslighting,” for people who have somehow remained blissfully unaware of the Internet’s growing fascination with the concept, is taken from the movie Gaslight. In it, the protagonist is subjected to a fiendish type of psychological torture by her evil husband, who seeks to convince her that she is insane. He does so by repeatedly lying to her, baldly, to her face, about things she knows to be otherwise—such as whether the lights in the house are at full intensity or not.

Political regimes sometimes do something similar. Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovak dissident against Communism, famously wrote in The Power of the Powerless:

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? 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 unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window 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 in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. 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 “in harmony with society,” as they say.

…Let us take note: if the greengrocer 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 greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, 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 greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer 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.

…Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.

It was hard to select only a few paragraphs out of this brilliant, earthshaking essay. But the main points are that many regimes force their peoples to mouth slogans or profess beliefs that they know to be false. A good example is North Korea, which insisted during the rule of Kim Jong Il that he was an accomplished athlete and archer, and now similarly insists that Kim Jong Eun is similarly multitalented, against all available evidence.

If the regime could actually convince the people that these things are true, so much the better. But it is not necessary. In fact, from a certain point of view, it is better for the people to know that the things they are being made to say are lies; then, when you repeat the official line like a good subject, you are knowingly humiliating and demoralizing yourself. You are demonstrating your willingness to surrender the truth for self-preservation. And you are also making it harder for others in your position to resist, as they hear what seems to be a unanimous voice from their neighbors repeating the official ideology despite its falsity.

This goes beyond a mere “shibboleth,” a style or opinion that you profess in order to signal your affiliation with a given social group, rather than out of conviction. (For example, liking or disliking Tim Tebow.) The official line is a shibboleth of a kind, true, and functions in that way; but the falsity of the official ideology is important for demoralizing dissenters. The regime is gaslighting the populace.

This can obviously vary in intensity. From a certain point of view, any form of national identity is an ideology of this kind, at least in part, but usually relatively harmless. On the other hand, Vaclav Havel’s experience under Communism was a different beast entirely. “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.”

In fantasy especially, many authors trying to depict a tyranny either go with a cruel regime blatantly lording it over the groaning peasants, or a regimented society of brainwashed drones. But we needn’t go to either extreme, and our setting can be more interesting if we do not. A society with an ideology that no one actually believes, but that everyone needs to pretend to believe, can provide a rich vein of conflict and thematic resonance. Sound interesting?


(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. I am now moving my attention to the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)