/ 1 December 2022

What happens when the unacceptable is said out loud

Authoritarian systems reject challenges to themselves – yet just that is happening in Ukraine and Russia, China and Iran. (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Zero Ukraine, zero Covid, zero women. What do Russia, China and Iran have in common?

All have problems arising from denying reality and all of those problems are accentuated by an authoritarian regime that cannot admit fault.

That observation leads to deeper questions about how contrarian views are expressed; the issues in an authoritarian society are rather different than in a democratic order but lead to a similar question. What happens when the unacceptable is said out loud? What does that really signify in both a democratic order and an authoritarian state?

Ukraine: courage under fire

It is clear from the original invasion map of Ukraine that Russia’s plan was a quick absorption of the areas that were already destabilised since 2014 with a rapid strike on the capital to effect regime change. 

Had the 60km-long convoy targeting Kyiv and the attempt at establishing a base at Antonov Airport in Hostomel reached their targets and had Zelenskiy fled, Russia would have taken Ukraine at low cost. 

Putin would have vastly increased his prestige among Russian nationalists, hero-worshipping white supremacists in the West and, ironically, those on the left who have not seen through his fascism.

In short, his plan was to erase Ukraine as a separate entity and complete the Russification project started under Stalin, nullifying centuries of Ukrainian culture and history.

The reality turned out differently: Ukraine resisted far more effectively than almost everyone expected and Russia is locked into an expensive war that it cannot win except by radically rewriting its goals every time Ukraine has a significant breakthrough.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country to avoid being drafted into the war. Sadly, much of the negative commentary about the war from Russians that I see on social media is about how they are ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-supplied and ill-led. 

I do not see much about how wrong the war is. Ukrainians are referred to by the derogatory ethnic slur “hohol”. On Russia Today in October 2022, TV host Anton Krasovsky said Ukrainian children who called Russians “occupiers” should be drowned or burnt to death. 

Despite his suspension for making these and other vile remarks, he has not been prosecuted. Russia has harsh penalties for disrespecting the military and the state yet this sort of commentary is not apparently unlawful.

There is plenty of other evidence that Putin and his supporters in Russia do not see Ukraine as a valid country or culture and its occupants must either accept being Russian or cease to exist. 

That the Ukrainians disagree and are prepared to fight hard for their right to exist should result in a correction. But it doesn’t: an authoritarian ruler never admits fault. Perhaps at some point, Russian losses will result in an attitude change and mass protests. If this happens, expect it to be sudden.

Chinese circumvent access to information

China also has a problem with reality: its zero-Covid policy is increasingly looking fragile and has resulted in unprecedented protests. Unlike Hong Kong’s 2019–2020 protests and Tiananmen Square in 1989, these protests are not confined to one locality and hence are much harder to suppress. 

Protests have gone far beyond the unrealistic expectation that lockdowns are still the optimal approach to the virus and are calling for the ousting of President Xi Jinping or even the end of Communist Party rule. 

(Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Large protests have been reported in many localities even in large cities like Shanghai, initially triggered by local protests over deaths in a fire in Urumqi, nearly 4 000km from Shanghai. Despite China’s tight control of information, protests have also broken out in Beijing and numerous other cities.

Whether these protests will continue to grow and threaten the regime or not, they illustrate the same point as Russia’s failed Ukraine adventure.

Iran: protest in the face of fear

Iran, like China, is facing protests that are escalating despite good reason to fear an authoritarian crackdown.

Iran has a sorry tradition of denying women the most basic rights based on the excuse of sharia law. There are Islamic scholars who argue that this interpretation of sharia law is based on selective reading and failing to reinterpret based on modern understanding. In their opinion, patriarchy and misogyny are being used to filter sharia law to favour a particular worldview.

However, that is not the real issue. The real issue is that Iran is an authoritarian state so once this sort of reading of the law, whatever its origins may be, is set, it is impossible to challenge. Theocracy is a particularly hard form of authoritarian governance to dislodge because theocratic despots claim divine authority. 

In Russia, it is a little the other way around: Putin has appropriated the Russian Orthodox Church to justify his worldview. The Chinese government at least has not appropriated religion.

Another facet of authoritarian governments is that they can maintain the appearance of tranquillity and consent for a long time as everyone who is discontent keeps this to themselves. 

When, suddenly, the dam bursts, the change can be dramatic and fast. Sometimes such change can be too fast and leaves the would-be revolutionaries unable to control events. That was a frequent occurrence in Arab Spring movements.

The nature of interior dialogue is an interesting conundrum wherever free speech is suppressed, but is also an issue when social norms damp down certain language or where free speech is limited in justifiable ways like prohibiting hate speech.  

What makes change sudden is changing the view that thoughts are not shared by others. Suddenly discovering that they are shared can grow like wildfire — or go viral.

Language matters: words can hurt and can be amplified to trigger major social movements, whether for the good or for the bad.

For reactionary regimes, language that causes harm to the other is often tolerated or even encouraged, such as the dehumanising labelling of Ukrainians (though to be fair, Ukraine supporters often label Russians as “orcs”). 

Progressives attempt to suppress such harmful language. But what is often missing on the left is understanding what causes the impulse to use harmful language. An authoritarian regime may see “harmful” as anything that undermines its authority. In a democratic order, citizens have a right — sometimes a duty — to disrespect authority. 

But disrespecting the vulnerable is not the same thing, even if the psychology of suppressing what should not be said is similar.

The biggest difference is that in a democratic order, unacceptable views can and should be addressed openly. If someone has harmful or derogatory views of others, silencing those views is not enough. 

In the South African context, as a deeply divided society, only reacting when yet another racist rant appears on social media is not enough, we need to address the systemic causes of inequality.

Many on the right, particularly in the US, are jumping onto the free speech bandwagon — even some who support authoritarian regimes like Putin’s. They are arguing for the right to cause pain. 

If we want to fix this, it is not enough to shut them up: we need to understand the social, economic and political forces that drive a desire to harm the other. 

If we don’t do that, a sudden surge in the popularity of reactionary politics may be impossible to stop and we risk democracy being replaced by the kind of order we see in Russia, China and Iran, where the government cannot admit fault and ordinary people have no power to complain.

Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.