An Enemy of the People

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Henrik
Ibsen (1828–1906) is a Norwegian playwright who challenged
in his plays hypocrisy of people whose noble façade masked
their deceitful nature. In An
Enemy of the People
, published in 1882, Ibsen launched a
scathing attack on the press, the authority and the system of majority
rules. James McFarlane, in an introduction to the Oxford edition
of the script, states that as early as 1872 Ibsen had talked enthusiastically
about his hatred toward any identifiable grouping that went in for
majority practices which invited majority decisions. When Ghosts
was published in 1881, Ibsen faced hostile reception by the public
and according to McFarlane, the event confirmed his view that "the
press was no better than a parasite on a grotesque and deformed
body politic, for ever talking about freedom, but terrified of the
realities of it." These views are clearly expressed in An
Enemy of the People.

The
story takes place in a small Norwegian town, which relies on its
Baths (natural hot springs) as the main source of villagers' income.
The protagonist is Dr. Stockmann, the doctor at the Baths which
attract tourists. He is suspicious that the Baths are polluted.
He runs tests yet does not make any announcement until he receives
the result. Dr. Stockmann's brother, the Mayor (a.k.a. Chief of
Police, Chairman of the Board of the Baths, etc), notices that Dr.
Stockmann is up to something and warns him that any announcement
must be made through the authority in a well-ordered community.

The
result confirms Dr. Stockmann's suspicion. Hovstad, the editor of
the local newspaper The People's Herald, hears this and offers
his full support. Aslaksen, the printer of the newspaper (a.k.a.
the chairman of the Ratepayers Association and a member of the Temperance
Society), offers his support as a representative of the middle class.
Dr. Stockmann is impressed and proudly tells his wife, "Do
you know what I've got backing me? The compact majority."

The
Mayor learns the test result and tells Dr. Stockmann that he is
not convinced. When Dr. Stockmann asserts that his report is correct
and that the Mayor is the one responsible for developing the Baths
on a polluted ground, the Mayor contends that it is all for the
good of the town and wants the report withheld. Dr. Stockmann however
believes that if a new fact emerges which is in the interest of
the people, it should be revealed. The Mayor dismisses this and
says that Dr. Stockmann should publish a statement refuting the
report and "make a public declaration of his confidence in
the Board, in its efficiency and its integrity, and in its readiness
to take all necessary steps to remedy such defects as may arise."
In addition, he tells Dr. Stockmann that as a subordinate member
of the staff of the Baths, he has no right to express any private
opinion which conflicts with that of his superiors.

The
Mayor then sets about manipulating the villagers. He tells Hovstad
and Aslaksen that the report is not convincing and that to clean
up the Baths, it would require a lot of time and money. Hovstad
and Aslaksen are easily persuaded and they refuse to publish the
report in the People's Herald. Undaunted, Dr. Stockmann decides
to give a lecture instead in a public meeting.

Before
the lecture is delivered, Aslaksen says that a chairman should be
elected and he himself is chosen as a chairman. The Mayor then says
that no one wants to see "irresponsible and exaggerated accounts
of the sanitary conditions at the Baths" and proposes that
Dr. Stockmann should not be allowed to present his report. Dr. Stockmann
nevertheless speaks out. He does not talk about the Baths but he
is frustrated with the fact that people are unable to see beyond
what is put in front of them: "The worst enemy of truth and
freedom in our society is the compact majority."

Hovstad
then stands up and shouts that the majority is always right. Billing,
another character, supports Hovstad by saying that the majority
always stands for the truth. Dr. Stockmann contradicts by saying,
"The majority is never right…that's one of these lies in society
that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against…the
minority is always right." Furthermore Dr. Stockmann says that
there are only a few individuals with new ideas who stand in the
very forefront of our advance. When Hovstad accuses him of being
a revolutionary, Dr. Stockmann replies: "I'm plotting revolution
against this lie that the majority has a monopoly of the truth."
He goes on to condemn those who are "infected by the mass mind."

All
the arguing leads to Dr. Stockmann being declared an enemy of the
people. Aslaksen, who believes in majority rules, suggests that
a formal vote should be taken to clarify Dr. Stockmann's status
as an enemy of the people. So as "not to hurt anyone's feelings"
the vote is taken by secret ballot despite all the insults aimed
at Dr. Stockmann only a few moments ago.

The
story ends as Dr. Stockmann and his family are ostracised. Their
landlord, Horster, also loses his job for renting out his house
to the enemy of the people. When his boss questions him about the
property, Horster replies, "I think I can do what I like with
my own property." The Stockmanns decide to stay in the town
and hold their heads high. Dr. Stockmann tells his family, "The
strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone."

In
Individualism
and Economic Order
, Hayek expresses the sentiment demonstrated
by Dr. Stockmann. Hayek writes that true individualism believes
in democracy yet not in the omnicompetence of majority decisions.
Indeed, authorities often attempt to legitimise their actions by
gaining the majority's approval, which often derives from people's
blind faith in the authorities. People like Hovstad and Aslaksen
are easily swayed as they never stop and think for themselves. The
Mayor can manipulate them in the name of the common good. He fiercely
guards his reputation and never admits errors on his part for fear
of his authority being undermined.

Ibsen
wrote the play more than a hundred years ago yet it seems that not
much has changed. Unless there are more Dr. Stockmanns around, An
Enemy of the People will continue to be an accurate portrayal
of towns and countries that we live in.

July
26, 2005

Yumi
Kim [send mail] studied law
at BPP Law School. She lives in London.

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