At lunch the other day, Tajikistan’s ban on long beards, Arabic names, and hijabs came up. A colleague made the observation that regimes in other countries have required beards. Why all the fuss over a beard?

Coincidentally (or not), Wikipedia had a brief mention that day of Iran’s Kashf-e Hijab decree, the 1936 ban of the hijab in the name of secularization. The article states, without apparent irony, that “some scholars state that it is very difficult to imagine that even Hitler’s or Stalin’s regime would do something similar.” That seems a bit extreme, but I’ll certainly grant that controlling women’s expressions of modesty is a strong totalitarian measure.

Although I’d never thought about it before, the answer to my colleague’s question (“Why all the fuss over a beard?”) came to me almost immediately: because it’s enforceable. Even the most totalitarian of regimes cannot control what people think. They too have to worry about what laws they can enforce, and what laws they can’t. Say whatever else you will about the policy: you can enforce a no-beards law.

This brings home to me the reason that totalitarianism, moral concerns aside, is unworkable. The greater the desire of a government to control its citizens, the less it can tolerate any deviation. A totalitarian government sets a high standard for itself, and is therefore fragile. A cake has a greater margin of error than a soufflé. E.B. White wrote, “A despot doesn’t fear eloquent writers preaching freedom — he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.” A government that is threatened by a drunken poet—or a man with a long beard—or a woman in a veil—is very easily threatened indeed.

Surely in the exercise of power, the more subtle the more effective. Who can disagree with Screwtape? “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” I think similarly that if I were seriously interested in controlling the thought of a population, I would aim for a lighter touch. Unstated assumptions are the strongest ones. The elements of a culture that are most resistant to change are surely those that cannot or may not be discussed.

It follows that if one wanted to find oppressive structures, one would not (necessarily) look for government agents with hair clippers, but for the more subtle influence on people’s thought.

This brings to mind Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard commencement speech, which I have previously summarized as, “You have freedom of speech, but you have nothing to say.” (Take a moment with me to appreciate the irony that the top Google result for “Solzhenitsyn Harvard speech” is hosted by Solzhenitsyn speaks to the totalitarianism of wealth and freedom.

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness — in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.

So while I value the freedom to trim my beard in accordance with the dictates of my conscience, I will try to not fall victim to the lie that salvation lies therein. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does…”