Sunday, 11 December 2011

Totalitarianism - Seminar Summary

Totalitarianism refers to a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator. Ultimately, the movement revolves around the idea of complete power and control. Totalitarianism is a political system where the state in control believes 'everything is possible'. The main phenomena of totalitarianism  is that you are told what to believe. To enforce such a system, a policy of terror needs to be implemented. To drive fear into the heart of the public will destroy a sense of individuality, which is the vital first step to controlling the masses.

To shape a totalitarianistic society a single process of thought must be formed. Anybody that goes against this single thought must be punished and made an example of. Individuals that go against the single idea backed by the ruler are seen as enemies. In a sense, the public's perception of reality is altered somewhat, to the point where free thought is made difficult, if not impossible. Several links can be drawn between totalitarianism and Darwin's theory of the 'Survival of the fittest'. The supposed idea of an 'inferior race' is obviously linked to the Nazi party's justification of the holocaust. The holocaust is a clear example of how totalitarianism is used to strip people of their identity, rights and citizenship.

Hannah Arendt, born in 1906, was a German political theorist, believing in the individuality and the spontaneity of people. She wrote a number of articles for the New Yorker, also believing that no thinking person could be solely responsible for genocide. Arendt would argue that the only defence against totalitarianism was the idea of individuality. In her opinion, it wasn't necessary to possess wickedness in order to commit crimes. Her theory links well with Stanley Milgram's psychological study regarding authority figures, but I'll come to that later on. 

The Holocaust began in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany

Arendt wrote about a court cause concerning Adolf Eichmann, who was a key member of the Nazi party. Eichmann was one of the figures behind the planning of the holocaust, organising the process of the deportation of Jews. Arendt believed that Eichmann could be considered guilty, however not for the reasons proposed by the Court. She stated that his only crime was not thinking about his actions and serving whoever was in control with blind obedience. This links back to what I said earlier, which is the idea that no person on their own could be responsible for genocide. Instead, a number of people are involved. Eichmann was carrying out orders from a peer, not creating them himself.

A BBC Four documentary clip exploring Milgram's study

In 1963, Stanley Milgram published the results of his experiment related to the idea of obedience. The aim of Milgram's experiment was to investigate what level of obedience would be shown when participants were told by an authority figure to administer electric shocks to another person. In reality, the people the participants were 'shocking' were actors. 

The results were startling. All 40 of the Participant's obeyed the process up to 300 volts, at which point 5 refused to continue. During the study, many participants showed clear signs of discomfort. On one occasion, a participant had such a violent seizure experimenters had to intervene for the participants own safety.

Milgram summarised his findings in the form of a 9-point list. Perhaps the most relevant findings in relation to the holocaust were the following:

1) Participants believed the experiment was being carried out for a worthy purpose. They felt they were helping to advance knowledge and understanding of learning processes.

2) Milgram was arguing that an important factor influencing behaviour is the situation a person is in

3) We often believe a person has behaved the way they do because of their personality, when in fact it is the situation which shaped their behaviour

1984 by George Orwell tells the story of Winston Smith, a man living in a totalitarianistic society where he is made to re-write history (literally) by order of his leaders. The film links heavily with the themes explained at the start of my post. The world in which Smith lives is a world where citizens are told what to say, do and think. The citizens in this world cannot go against the thought of figurehead 'Big Brother', as to do so would result in severe punishment.

The flag of the ruling party in the film adaptation of 1984

The world in which Smith resides is governed by the Thought Police, a force whose Job it is to ensure members of society obey the rules set fourth by Big Brother. This force essentially enforces the idea that no individual is capable of thinking for themselves. Citizens in this world cannot act on impulse, they must act on the wishes of Big Brother. Smith goes against the body he serves, falling in love with a fellow citizen. In the world of Oceania, this is illegal. 

1984 is effective in showing the brutality of a totalitarianistic society. As is stated at the start of the film, "Those who control the present, control the past. Those who control the past control the future".


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