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  • Writer's pictureDean Dwyer

Truth and Lies

In Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, photographer Timo Križka and his wife Petra are members of their country's first post-communist generation. They were born around the time of the Velvet Revolution that overthrew the communist regime and the Velvet Divorce that peacefully separated the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Neither, therefore, carries personal memories of communism but they did grow up in its immediate aftermath with parents and other adults who still had the habits developed under totalitarianism.

Petra took some of them with her to the United States when she went there as an exchange student in 2005. This was not long after the 9/11 terrorist attack, when a heightened sense of security pervaded the country. She quickly noticed that people were willing to sacrifice a lot of their personal freedoms for the sake of national security, and that there was a lot of talk along the lines of . . . “I don't care if they listen to my phone calls or read my emails or text messages, because I don't have anything bad to say.” That was really strange for Petra, because these communications are very personal. She felt that it didn't really matter if one does or does not have something bad to say; it's a question of personal space.

How strange it was for a teenager to come from a culture just emerging from the reality of one careless word or indiscreet meeting having the potential to destroy a person's life, only to find herself being temporarily in one where everyone said whatever they wanted to, without a care in the world. Should it not have felt liberating? Not to Petra, with her background in a society in which privacy was precious. Her conflicting feelings highlight a philosophical and psychological dimension to the public/private divide over the meaning of living in truth. In his best-known novel The Unbeatable Lightness of Being, Czech writer Milan Kundera contrasts the attitudes of two characters – Sabina (a Czech woman) and her Swiss lover Franz – on the importance of personal privacy and authenticity. For Franz, who had always lived in the West, to live in truth meant to live transparently, without any secrets. Yet for Sabina, a lifelong citizen of communist Czechoslovakia, living in truth was possible only within a private life. Speaking of Sabina, he writes: “The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.”

Milan's observations, emerging from his own experiences of communism, are as relevant as ever. Since the invention of the smartphone and social media during the past decade or so, and the confessional culture they have created, we have gained a great deal of knowledge about how people – teenagers and young adults mostly – create “Instagrammable” lives for themselves. That is, they say and do things (including sharing intensely-personal information) to construct an image of a life that strikes their peers – whether they know them personally or not – as appealing and desirable. They live for the approval of others, represented by Likes on Facebook or other tokens of affirmation.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has tracked the astonishing rise of teenage depression and suicide among the first generation to come of age with smartphones and social media. She describes them as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades, and that much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. Their deep unhappiness comes from the isolation they feel, despite being connected by smartphone-enabled social networking to more people than any generation in the past. Smartphone culture has radically increased the social anxiety they experience, as information coming through their phones convinces sensitive teenagers – especially girls – that they are being left out of the more exciting lives others appear to be having. However, most of their peers aren't having more vivid and intense lives; they are just better at developing their images online. Young people today are living in illusions. This technology and the culture that has emerged therefrom is reproducing the atomisation and radical loneliness that totalitarian communist governments used to impose on their captive peoples to make them easier to control.

Having become habituated to sharing reams of personal data with marketers simply by moving through their daily lives online, these young people are making themselves highly vulnerable to manipulation by big corporations and outside entities. Put bluntly, they are being conditioned to accept a Westernised version of China's social credit system, which will enforce the tenets of the political cult of social justice. If this ever takes root in Western countries, there will be no place to hide. This is why the testimonies of those who lived in truth under hard totalitarianism are so urgently needed. In the West today, we are living under decadent, pre-totalitarian conditions. Social atomisation, widespread loneliness, the rise of ideology, widespread loss of faith in institutions and other factors leave society vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation to which both Russia and Germany succumbed in the previous century.

Czech playwright and future post-communist president Vaclav Havel's most famous injunction to would-be dissidents was to “live in truth.” He knew that he was addressing a nation that had no way of rising up against the might of the Czechoslovak police state, but he also knew something most of them did not: they were not entirely powerless. “Consider,” he said, “the case of the greengrocer who posts a sign in his shop bearing the well-known slogan from the Communist Manifesto, Workers of the world, unite! He doesn't believe in it: he hangs it in his shop as a sign of conformity, just wanting to be left alone. His action is not meaningless though: the greengrocer's act not only confirms that this is what is expected of one in a communist society but also perpetuates the belief that this is what it means to be a good citizen.

“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops erecting the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce, and he begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie: he rejects the ritual and breaks the rule of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. This costs him. He loses his shop, his salary is cut, and he won't be able to travel abroad. Perhaps his children won't be able to get into college. People persecute him and those around him, not necessarily because they oppose his stance but because they know that this is what they have to do to keep the authorities from persecuting them. The poor little greengrocer, who testifies to the truth by refusing to mouth a lie, suffers, but there is a deeper meaning to his gesture.

“By breaking the rules of the game he has disrupted the game. He has exposed it as a mere game, shattering the world of appearances – the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together, demonstrating that living a lie is living a lie. He has said that the emperor is naked, and because he is in fact naked something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth – living within the lie can constitute the system only if it's universal. However, the principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”

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