Conformity is seductive. Even in societies where questioning prevailing narratives and challenging authority has been entrenched in educational systems and the media, conformity to the view of the majority is a much warmer milieu than intellectual autonomy. A gifted orator who succeeds in distilling the public’s feelings about an issue into succinct messages that sound smart and are devoid of qualifications could capture the heart of the nation, especially at moments of economic weakness. Here, packaging impulses as robust solutions trumps serious thinking.

This is national self-deception. It shows the society’s fears, but portray them as triggers for change. It makes clear the weaknesses, but depicts them as damages imposed by others. And it stops a society from delving into itself, from seeing the true causes of its anxieties. Often these causes transcend economic weaknesses, declining standards of living, or the increasing presence of foreigners ‘among us’. Beneath these lie a separation anxiety: one or two generations within a society that grow with a certain belief about their country, their identity, their place in the world, the relative value of their beliefs and way of life, and what they expect the future to bring, find themselves in a reality in which all of these are challenged. They have not changed their expectations; the present changed. They became separated from what they assumed will always be their life. This is an inhospitable emotional place.

National self-deception becomes the easy way out. Confronting the political, economic, and cultural changes that altered a society’s circumstances becomes difficult because it entails the excruciating questions of ‘why, what happened, how did we lose what we had’. Invariably, the true and honest answer entails self-blame: where the society has let itself slide.

To avoid that, we deceive ourselves by deflecting blame to others. We try to punish the weaker ones whom we can still, with our lesser means, continue to dominate. Imposing pain on others becomes valuable because it makes the society seem to be doing something. One of the sometimes deluded, but typically manipulative, gifted orators becomes a rising leader who captures the national mood. He or she portrays blaming and punishing others as serious effort to restore ‘our greatness’. The rising leader attaches meaning to the society’s moral descent. And with those whom we can no longer punish, our challengers, the ones who have been working hard while we were sliding, we resort to stereotyping and conspiracy theories.

These narratives not only delude a society into further descent; they become a basis for domination. Those who master the narrative of national self-deception – particularly the rising leaders at that moment of mass anxiety – emphasise ‘the exceptional circumstances the society is undergoing and that necessitate sacrificing checks and balances’. If they are able to invoke that ‘we are under threat’, their path to the throne gets shorter.

That tired old game succeeds when three things happen. First, the powerful interests see the general anxieties as threats to the order they had benefited from, and calculate that controlling the narrative (and therefore policy making) is crucial to maintaining the system. Here, the mistaken assumption that the old system would continue under the new circumstances leads to the cardinal sin of betting on those rising leaders, the grand deceivers who capture and exacerbate the national sense of fear. Second, the game succeeds when the traditional political forces of the society become too close to the same (or other) powerful interests. This diminishes their political entrepreneurialism, and so their ability to evolve the order that has underpinned their society’s decline. In the eyes of large sections of their society, they become part of the problem. And third: when the most enlightened – truly liberal – voices in that society become mere moral agents, proselytising against the big interests but without the ability or the desire to put forward drastic corrective measures – because their genuine liberalism inhibits their reactionary impulses. Here, those liberal voices build small constituencies of followers and larger audience of admirers. But they antagonise the powerful interests and fail to enthuse the colossal segments of economic losers who constitute the largest voting blocks.

Those wide segments of voters fall for the deception. The deceivers come to power. Many, especially within the liberal groups, feel disenchanted with their own society, and alienated from the place they call home. Some isolate themselves, become Espinosas: saying their words not caring who will hear them and what they’ll do with them. But most fight the narrative of deception and self-delusion. And here, they offer the deceivers an opportunity for acquiring more powers.

In the grand narrative of deception, the liberal fighters become either ‘intentional perpetrators of untruths’ or ‘irrationals who can’t see the truth’. In a short period of time, the great leaders, speaking on behalf of the ‘majority’ (the wide segments that elected them) threaten the liberals that ‘our tolerance and patience of [their falsehoods] have limits’. The liberals become ‘threats, agents’, or in the best cases, ‘naive’. Either way, they become of lesser value than ‘us, the ones who understand the reality and know the truth.

Soon enough, ‘we’ accept to be treated in a lesser way than we had been before. Why? Because of what political scientists call “normalisation”: the relatively quick and easy ways with which most humans accommodate and adjust to declining status and rights. Nationalism lubricates that accommodation: slogans that invoke a country’s name help. Narratives of national self-deception deepen the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide and entrench ‘our’ inherent moral superiority. Invoking God here works magic. If the deceivers are able (which is usually easy) to infuse religious connotations in their rhetoric, portray themselves as deeply motivated by a divine order, and co-opt powerful religious authorities, they occupy the national psyche: their constituencies elevate them to the status of transformers; their liberal detractors become obsessed by them. Either way, they set the agenda.

Invariably the deceivers’ consolidation of power heralds a rise of mediocrity. Decision becomes concentrated in circles around the ‘great transformer’. True talent (again) adopt the Spinozian approach of detachment. There emerges an obsession within the ruling circles with what could be packaged as achievements here and now, with the notion of ‘our leader delivering to the people, restoring our greatness’. Predictably, national self-deception and the rise of mediocrity accelerate the society’s regression, rather than halt it.

A society’s escape route almost always comes through an internal shock: acute polarisation or extreme economic pressures – any situation that forces the society to look beyond the illusionary narrative, whose explanatory and consoling powers wanes as quickly as it rose. Within a short period of time, large segments of the society see the delusion they had embraced. They realise that the seductive comfort of living an untruth was actually a trap, in which they handed over their collective will to charlatans who abused their society’s politics and squandered its resources. This realisation builds rage – or, rather, unleashes the rage that had previously been directed only at the foreigners, the external forces, and the liberals. Now, the unleashed rage seeps out of politics into various social circles. The level of chaos and violence in that period depends on the society’s prior reservoir of cultural advancement and behavioural refinement. The period could become a catharsis through which the society evolves from its self-delusion, comes to terms with what it has lost, and reflects on its realistic options. That allows various serious streams of thought to put themselves forward as alternatives. But there’s another scenario. The period could herald further descent into baseness. Segments within the society, especially in the traditionally restless lower middle classes, refuse to accept the new economic realities. Their anger ignites sparks of class or other social confrontations.

At this stage, the society needs either a Konrad Adenauer or a Milan Kundera. In the first case, a leader with an exceptionally strong will, an unshakable belief in his nation’s greatness yet without qualifications about its descent, and a sensitive moral compass captures the national feelings. The Adanauer of the nation presents the painful reality to his society, but attaches to it a vision of how the society can climb from the swamped valleys back to the sunny hills. His greatest contribution becomes his ability to command the national psyche and inspires it, against the odds, to transcend the factors that regressed it. He takes the society to an emotional and moral state that’s almost the exact opposite of that in which the society was under the grand deceivers.

When an Adanauer fails to appear, a Kundera becomes a necessity. As the society sinks deeper into the mud of authoritarianism and the liberals are cast as the enemy, or the naive who should acquiesce to the ‘truths’ that the majority holds, an artist who’s ‘one of us’, one who escaped tyranny yet maintained and nurtured his burden with ‘our’ predicament becomes a genuine reflection of the good and the great in the society’s consciousness. His or her art transcends mere crusading against tyranny, and instead delves in the society’s complex understandings of values. Stories of love, loss, and lament, of pursuing pleasures here and now to drown crushing sorrows, of camaraderie, friendship, and belonging, and of identities inherited, created, or bankrupt – all strip the society naked. Wide audiences find themselves seduced by simple narratives, disarming words, engaging scenes, and familiar milieus into looking at themselves drowning in the mud. Repulsion at ‘what we have become’ and hope of returning to a refinement that we have lost catalyses segments of the society to rise up, if not against tyranny, at least against the feelings, ideas, and rhetoric it has stood and built on.

Conformity loses its appeal. Liberal forces that have withstood the oppression, persevered against the ridiculing and did not succumb to haughtiness or alienation, connect with the social segments that rise against ugliness. The deceivers, invariably, resort to the stick. The heaviness of violence awaken yet larger groups to the deceptions. The longing for the lost lightness of refinement spreads rapidly within society. Untruths fall.

Tarek Osman