“Is ISKCON a Closed or an Open Society?”
A closed society is an authoritarian one in which the state or institution counts for more than the individual. The right to question and freedom to question is curtailed either by the strong arm of the law or by peer pressure. This, of course, can be applied to varying degrees and it may be argued that in any society or community there will be a certain amount of such restrictions of individual freedoms for the general well-being of the majority. What distinguishes a closed society, however, and makes it oppressive, is that a minority, a very small minority, determines what is good for the majority. In a closed society majority consensus is never sought, except when the outcome is predictable and favorable.
Unlike brahminical society, wherein the majority follows the lead of a minority as well, a closed society is never oriented towards the development of a social order in which each individual is duly respected and not made a tool for the selfish ambition of others. He need not be afraid to speak out and the pursuit of truth does not isolate him from the others; rather it makes him feel closer to them. The dynamic is geared towards the unfolding of the individual’s powers, not towards paralyzing them. A closed society is an authoritarian society.
Among the many ugly dangers of a closed society is that there is little or no latitude for accountability of the leadership. Thus, there is ample room for tyranny, corruption, ineptitude, and secrecy, because no one can question. In such situations change is only brought about by crisis.
Societies may be closed to varying degrees and, depending on how restrictive such a community is, any number of sanctions and laws may be imposed by the authoritarian leadership with the justification that it is “for the greater good.” Laws and rules are made and upheld that severely limit the freedom of the citizens or members of society. Speech and other forms of self-expression are limited.
In Red China there are laws governing the number of children a couple can bear. Movement may also be restricted. Again, the penalty may vary. Intimidation, name-calling, black-listing and fear of social stigmatization—isolation from the herd—are severe enough penalties to keep people in line.
In a closed society, in the realm of ideas, force is preferred to persuasion. In the Eleventh Canto, however, the Lord tells Uddhava that viryam balodyamah, “justifying one’s actions by one’s strength” is a symptom of the mode of passion. In the Gita He describes the mode of passion as resulting in misery, rajasas tu phalam duhkham. This is the opinion of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and one may note that here the Lord clearly predicts the destiny of a closed society, as we have seen with the communist bloc countries in the last ten years.
In an open society, the same laws may be in effect, in principle, but because those laws are a result of consensus it is not a closed society. Generally, an open society allows for freedom of expression and the right to participate and to have a say in the affairs of leadership. In contrast to the closed society—wherein the laws are in preference to the state or institution over the individual, to the extent that the individual may end up with little or no rights at all—the open society has laws that protect the rights of the individual against the state. The state generally intervenes only when the individual transgresses the rights of another. Otherwise, he or she is free to assume responsibility for themselves, for their actions, decisions and so forth. In the realm of ideas, persuasion is the means to sway opinion, not force.