“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.”
–Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
It is disturbing that few people in leadership positions today, in business or politics, would see any immediate relevance in Frederick Douglass’ reflection on the dehumanizing nature of slavery, an insight shared by other great leaders like Harriet Tubman, the ex-slave who freed hundreds of others, yet knew she “could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” The relevance is obvious yet unseen in the wasteland of social dysfunction in our workplaces and communities, where “moral and mental vision” has indeed been darkened, and the “power of reason annihilated”. Douglass, himself an ex-slave, understood precisely what it means to “cease to be human”.
The point to be made here is that the burgeoning leadership crisis flows from the dehumanizing ideas and forces that underpin secular consumer society.
And the clearest indication that humanity is being eroded is the suppression of truth. Leadership upholds justice, and justice depends on truth. Opposing injustice in all its forms requires courage; it is called speaking truth to power, and you cannot be a leader without it. That is why this age, the age of ideology, is mired in misleadership.
I was recently asked by a corporate manager whether she should speak to her immediate superior about his disparaging treatment of her in the presence of her direct reports. My response was another question: why would she want to work in an organization where people were too afraid to speak up in the face of bullying, disrespect, and the undermining of team culture? She got the point, challenged her thoughtless boss, and won not just an apology, but also his respectful support ever since.
Of course, the outcome could have been rather less convivial, and indeed, on the many occasions when I have responded in similar vein to variations on the same question, the result has sometimes been a rupture in relationships. What can be said with confidence, is that the people who chose to stand on principle grew as a result of their courage, and having escaped the shackles of corporate deceit, generally went on to better things.
The simple reality is that when people have been subdued to the point where they are afraid to challenge injustice of any sort, then they are denying their own humanity. When they fail to reflect on the injustice itself or their docility in the face of it, then the dehumanizing process has reached an advanced stage. And the conclusion here is obvious enough: they are not being led, but manipulated, mere pawns in someone else’s game. This is where utilitarian morality has brought us.
They are blinded by scientific advances and technological wizardry, and religiously wedded to the idea that progress is measured solely in terms of material success. But just whose material success do they mean in this time of the shrinking middle class and the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor? While I have always been strongly opposed to socialist principles, I find the dishonesty, greed, and disintegration of community that characterizes crony capitalism and its unholy alliance with Nanny State’s bungling bureaucratic behemoth to be equally repugnant. Both are committed to the principle of centralized control that always issues in corruption, inefficiency, and tyranny.
Consider a few examples of the blatant deceit that most people accept with shameful docility:
Globalization has seen a sharp decline in economic growth, with wages falling while corporate profits are robust
Countries carry massive debt – 17½ trillion in the US, almost three trillion in Britain, five trillion in Japan, three trillion in Germany, two trillion in France, and on and on
Some five million of the 38 million men in the US between 18 and 34 are out of work and another million are in prison. Almost one in six cast on the scrap-heap
75 000 pages of US federal tax code are used by the rich and powerful as a tool for social engineering and economic manipulation
Corporate welfare mocks free enterprise, with subsidies, tax breaks, and special loans favouring large corporates at the expense of SMEs
The influence of lobbyists in government kills democracy and promotes plutocracy
Freedom of speech is under siege on university campuses throughout the West
Amnesty International defends prostitution as a “human right”
Radical feminists support pornography in defiance of common sense, logic, and science
A society plagued by sexual abuse, social dysfunction, and a mental health crisis invites men into women’s bathrooms
These egregious violations of justice by the very people sworn to uphold it underline the extent to which people in the West have become slaves to hollow utopian promises of security, prosperity, and self-indulgent excess. The socio-economic mess and cultural malaise in America and the tragi-comic suicide of Europe, both widely predicted throughout the 20th century, are glaring evidence of the extent to which the nihilistic West has turned away from truth.
Though the philosophical roots of the West’s disdain for truth run deep into the past, it was over the last hundred years that the doctrine known as relativism took over. Relativism is a denial of absolute truth and fixed principles, solid standards for the guidance of humans as social beings. It says that truth is always relative to the point of view of the individual, or to the time in which it is set, or to the cultural context. This leaves the very idea of truth as contingent and malleable, a fugitive concept lacking the substance in which to ground virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control.
Obviously enough, since leadership depends on justice, relativism opened the door to the misleadership, which has long threatened humanity, to become endemic at every level of society. It is the triumph of Machiavelli over Dante, of Hobbes over Locke, of Realpolitik over social justice. Usurping the concepts of justice, freedom, and democracy, and giving them meanings that disguise the new power dispensation, has helped misleaders in politics and business to transform western society in the space of fifty years, as democracy, the rule of law, and common decency have been shredded.
The secret weapon of the misleaders has been political correctness, the essential tool of ideology, a one-sided version of reality that seeks to promote a specific agenda. Political correctness is an attempt to eradicate independent thought, with government, corporations, academia, and the media, aiming to control the way we think by making it taboo to say certain things. Restricting freedom of speech erodes freedom of thought, and the effects are devastating. In 1990, Vaclav Havel identified political correctness as fundamental to the nightmare from which Czechoslovakia was just emerging:
The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves.
The objective of reason is truth; the objective of political correctness is control.
Think about it. If you wanted to reduce people to subordination and dependence on the State, what would you do? Get in their heads and shape the way they think about life. Tell them there is no meaning and purpose in life beyond their own self-gratification. Deny them knowledge of the great ideas contained in classic literature and history. Restrict independent thinking and rational debate through political correctness. Dismiss even science when it contradicts the reigning ideology. Undermine virtue i.e. wisdom, courage, justice, self-control, faith, hope, and love. Encourage self-indulgence, especially through permissiveness and promiscuity. Break down the family and other community-building institutions to foster individual isolation. And finally, stifle self-reliance and encourage dependence on the state in all areas of life, especially healthcare and education.
And if all that doesn’t sound familiar, what Frederick Douglass warned against has already happened to you. All the evidence indicates that the pseudo-democracies and corporate power-mongers of the West, aided by astounding new technologies, have been inordinately successful in implementing this program over the past half century.
The infantilized inhabitants of our postmodern utopia are enslaved by the distractions of destructive desires and ingenious technological gimmickry. They have endless options for fueling already over-stimulated sexual appetites, and no shortage of possibilities when it comes to the latest smartphones and games, but are utterly bereft of meaningful choice when it comes to the type of government that shapes their lives, or the corporations that control that government’s direction. Why is anyone surprised by the growing rebellion on both left and right in western countries – Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Trump, Sanders, Brexit, the re-emergence of fascist sentiment in Europe, and much more.
One of the increasingly influential philosophers today, in spite of his Nazi connections, is Heidegger, whose critique of western liberalism with its rationalist and universalist claims is attracting followers not only in the radical Left of academia, but also among neo-fascists in Europe and far-right Identitarians in the US, Russia, Iran, and presumably other Shiite communities. Heidegger believed that the widespread sense of alienation that characterizes western society arises from the narrow and ultimately misguided rationalism of the Enlightenment with its utilitarian implications. A merely procedural reason, based on the unfounded assumption that humanity creates its own meaning, carries within itself the seeds of violence and domination.
Heidegger provided an intellectual justification, different from that of Marx’s economic diagnosis, for the angry opponents of western liberalism to tap into. Ominously, he offered no clear alternative political program, but plainly accepted that violence would be necessary. The instrumentalist worldview of western liberalism is philosophically bankrupt in the face of challenges like Heidegger’s ideas, and the West needs to return to the substantive reasoning of the intellectual tradition of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, from whence came its greatness in the first place.
And that intellectual tradition was built on the foundation of the truth about humanity, on understanding human nature and human dignity, on wrestling virtuously with the perversities of the human condition, working to dismantle old slaveries and to resist new ones. Sadly, the cynical nihilism that for centuries chipped away at that foundation has now gained the ascendency, undermining truth and sponsoring tyranny, enslaving millions without them even realizing it.
Many who read this reflection will no doubt demand answers rather than mere diagnosis, but if you want answers, that means you want the truth. Then start to seek the truth for yourself, sincerely and tirelessly, eschewing the swollen tide of propaganda that chokes the media channels. That requires talking with the right people and reading the right books, both difficult expedients in this day and age.