My previous story from back in Ukraine about the effects of totalitarianism was very successful, so here is another one.
In the 1990s, computers weren’t ubiquitous, and college class schedules were made on paper and posted on a huge cardboard piece on the wall by the Dean’s Office. In Ukraine, we didn’t choose our classes. Each group was assigned the classes and given the schedule each semester.
So before the beginning of one semester, I went with my group to copy the schedule from a big cardboard poster. Of course, when you do this kind of work by hand, errors creep in. It turned out that somebody in the Dean’s Office had made a mistake and scheduled two of our courses for the same time slot on the same days.
What does a normal person with no experience of totalitarianism do when something like this happens? What would you do? You’d go to the Dean’s Office to tell the people there that they made a mistake, right? Everybody is human, mistakes happen, no big deal.
But when I suggested this to the group, everybody was incensed.
“You are going to get us all into trouble!” people hissed. “If we go, they’ll think we are complainers and trouble-makers!”
“I’m not suggesting we make trouble,” I tried to explain. “We are going to say very politely and respectfully that there’s a mistake in the schedule and please rectify it.”
“Please don’t do this to us,” my best friend begged. “You aren’t even planning to show up in class. If you complain, the Dean’s Office will hate our whole group but you won’t be here to suffer the consequences. You will let us all down.”
It was true that I rarely showed up for anything that wasn’t a final exam, so I agreed to stay out of this. The group decided to choose one of the courses in the time slot and pretend that the other one didn’t exist. I tried pointing out that not fulfilling your course load for the semester would create more trouble than informing the Dean’s Office about the mistake but the terror of saying anything negative about the authorities was too strong.
The funniest part was that, apparently, the professor whose course the group had chosen to ignore was equally terrified of the authorities. He never mentioned to the Dean’s Office that not a single one of his students ever came to class. The poor bastard showed up for his scheduled class twice a week and. . . just sat there. He never went to find out what was happening.
As you can imagine, it all came out at the end of the semester. Everybody caught hell. Our group couldn’t do its scheduled state exam at the end of the year. We fell behind other groups, and there was a lot of confusion about when we were going to graduate. And it all happened because people had absolutely no idea how to treat people in authority – even the tiny, insignificant authority of the ladies in the Dean’s Office who made schedules – as fallible human beings and not incomprehensible, irate and distant deities.