Analysis

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Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796

On Tyranny is written in the style of a manifesto, and it employs concise, straightforward prose interspersed with quotations and observations. It is direct, addressing the reader as “you,” and succinct in its advice, such as “make eye contact and small talk.” The author’s tone is often cautionary or prophetic or both. These stylistic devices add a sense of urgency to the narrative, which befits its purpose. Indeed, historian Timothy Snyder intends his manifesto to serve as a much-needed preventive measure against the subversion of democracy. The direct language also ensures that the text is accessible to a wide audience, even though it unpacks serious and complex ideas from sociological, political, and philosophical discourses. Snyder’s writing style also resembles a dramatic and rhetorical speech to an audience. However, unlike the emotional rhetorical styles of the dictators he critiques, Snyder’s rhetoric is lucid, aiming to persuade his reader of the logic of his assertions. Another interesting feature of Snyder’s text is that though it is understood that he critiques the politics of Donald Trump, he never actually names him in the book, referring to Trump simply as “the president.” This tendency makes Snyder’s pointed criticisms of Trump all the more subtle.

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Snyder frequently uses quotations and concepts from other books to illustrate his text. The primacy of books is deliberate, since Snyder is practicing exactly what he preaches. He reads to enrich himself and gain a well-rounded sense of human nature and historical process. From classics of dystopian literature to memoirs of Holocaust survivors like Victor Klemperer to the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt, Snyder refers to a gamut of works across genres throughout his manifesto. The emphasis on books and reading goes hand in hand with Snyder’s belief that the truth is best investigated through longer narratives and patterns rather than through symbols, screenshots, and sound-bites. A society which loses interest in books and limits its vocabulary makes itself vulnerable to authoritarian rule. Snyder shrewdly notes that “the classic novels of totalitarianism” warned of “the suppression of books, the narrowing of vocabularies, and the associated difficulties of thought.” As reading is abandoned, so is the capacity for complex, critical thought. That is why at one point, Snyder dryly instructs his reader to “make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

Snyder also calls for closer attention to language. Careless use of language simplifies the world itself, placing people in categories of national and anti-national, good and bad, and for and against in a simplistic manner. Thus, narrow vocabulary and unimaginative language make the tasks of tyrants that much easier. The age of the Internet, with its reliance on simplified and shortened language, lends itself to such manipulation. Thus, reading and writing are afforded the status of revolutionary acts in a world obsessed with surfaces. Snyder also encourages readers to keep themselves safe by keeping their private lives secret, recording their memories and maintaining physical diaries, as did Klemperer. After all, physical books do not track one’s data, and the written word does not live in the cloud.

Further, states Snyder, by recording their experiences, readers can preserve their truth, and truth is paramount. The focus on truth is all the more important in the age of the Internet, since in this age “we are all publishers.” Every time people verify a story’s factuality before sharing it, they act as guardians of the truth.

Snyder analyzes how the schism between people’s digital and physical selves is exploited by authoritarian forces. Since screens make people passive, tyranny loves screens. Screens and virtual reality prevent people from being out on the streets, meeting other humans in person, and building personal connections, which is precisely what tyranny wants. Tyranny dislikes networks of human solidarity because they exist outside governmental control. It is thus up to citizens to resist tyranny and use digital media intelligently. 

Snyder’s aim here is not to demonize technology but to highlight how tyrants adopt technology to suit their goals. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, tried unsuccessfully to use cyber attacks to rig the Ukrainian election. Because technology potentially allows space for governments to access the private lives of citizens, it has to be used with great caution. History shows that authoritarian governments do not like their citizens to have a private self because private selves resist control. Thus, people need to guard their data online fiercely, because “nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around.” Though the temptation to express oneself online is an undeniable fact of contemporary life, Snyder advises people to take a balanced approach to their online presence. He also suggests moving to more offline situations and generally living life in the real world.

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