Tyranny is the unrestrained exercise of power. It is oppressive rule. A despotic use of authority. Whenever any person or group of people enforce their worldview upon another person or group of people it is a tyrannical act. To say that my way of living is better than your way of living, so your way of living must satisfy mine, that is tyranny.
Thesaurus.com lists only one antonym to tyranny. Democracy. We all know the most common definition of democracy; government by the people. We the people decide our laws. We are the supreme power. But just as tyranny is more than government power, democracy is more than a governmental definition.
The third definition of democracy on dictionary.com says that democracy is a state of society. It is a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges. This is what I’m talking about here, and these ideas are what struck me as I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The premise of the book is a denial of democratic ideals. The advent of tyranny. A revolutionary coup in the United States begins the reign of a brutal, puritanical society, called Gilead. Under a new regime, powerful men are kings, called “Commanders.” Women and lesser men are placed in subservient roles to these commanders. Of course, to sell this idea there must be cooperation and, as is often the case, this cooperation is secured in the name of God. It is God’s will that women serve men. It is God’s will that they serve as vessels for procreation, servants for acquiring and preparing food. Women deserve no democratic rights. No voice. Remember what happened last time they were allowed to speak, as equals? Remember when, in the Garden, the first woman tempted and corrupted the first man?
Of course, as with any tyrannical deployment, the men are captives, too. There can only be so many commanders. They only get so many chances to procreate, and failure leads to loss of rank. There can only be one religion, one nation, one allegiance, and one gender preference. Any attempt to escape, to practice a forbidden belief, or to love within your gender gets you to the wall. Eventually. Only your lifeless corpse hangs from the wall after the State is done with you. After that, you are an example for all to see.
Shallow minds will think this book unbelievable. Impossible. Not here, they say. But we don’t have to travel too far back in time to see a day when America thought that women were subservient, lesser creatures, undeserving of democracy. Undeserving of a vote. Their bodies and wills belonged to their men. Escape from this status made her an outcast, at best. Sometimes it made them much, much worse. We still see it in some societies around the world today, and almost always in the name of God.
The book, told in the first person by one of the reproductive vessels of one of the commanders – by the powerfully human Offred – is indeed a tale of the oppressed. It is a reminder to me, to all of us, what can happen when we let the elements of tyranny prevail. When we deny democracy to our peers to make our own lives or statuses safer or better. When we think there is but one way, and it is ours.
We live in a climate today, of fear. Immigrants have come into our country and are stealing our jobs, some say. Homosexuality is rampant, others proclaim. Women are abusing their reproductive rights, we hear from others. That person’s pants are too low. Somebody knelt when I said stand.
Those are the voices of the tyrannical fringe. That is the denial of democracy. There is only one way, the voices say, and it is mine. If you do not follow my way, you will get the wall.
The Handmaid’s Tale is less a tale of resistance, and more a warning bell. This can happen. To you. To us. And all we have to do, to see that day, is allow the voice of intolerance to reign.
Gilead is only a heartbeat away.
*This is the second book in an ongoing series of posts about my 2018 Reading List. Most of the books on the list came from recommendations. Bojana recommended this book to me, and I’m thrilled that she did; I would not have noticed it otherwise. Thank you, my friend!