The Clapping Place

Just because people are clapping, doesn’t mean they agree.

A few years ago, I did a mini speaking tour in Eastern Europe – one of my absolute favorite places to be in the world. The warm and thoughtful people, excellent food (especially for a dedicated carnivore), and the rich history of art, culture, and philosophy made for yet another inspiring trip to the East. I couldn’t help but imagine that my Slovakian grandmother was walking beside me as I made my way around region…

While visiting a particularly beautiful mid-sized town in the countryside, I got the full guided tour from a local host. At one point, we reached a large open square. Once in the center of the square, my host paused and turned to me. His English was quite good, but limited. He was obviously searching for the words to explain where we were.

“It is the… How do you say?”

“Marketplace?”, I offered.

“No.”, he said definitively.

“Town square?”, I gambled once again.

“No. No.”, he said thoughtfully and obviously searching for the right words.

Now puzzled, I simply waited.

“It is the… clapping place.”, he said smiling with satisfaction that he had found the right descriptor.

Clapping place? What on earth is a clapping place? He went on to explain.

During the communist dictatorship, this square was used as a place to make speeches and pronounce edicts. He pointed out the large brutalist concrete building at one end of the square. That, he explained, was once the Party headquarters for the region.

At appointed times, the townspeople would be expected to gather in the square for a variety of purposes. The occasion might be a speech, pronouncement, or any number of mandatory “celebrations”.

At these events there was only one expectation. You were to clap loudly and enthusiastically – no matter the speaker or subject at hand.

It was then that I realized my host was not explaining a local landmark to me. He was sharing a historical trauma – the kind of particular psychological and social harm that inevitably accompanies communist and socialist dictatorships.

Scarcity of resources, show trials, purges, unjust detention and imprisonment, and legalized bullying of varying sorts are no doubt the most obvious forms of control. However, the lingering impacts of a society rife with informants, tightly controlled information and media, orchestrated gaslighting, and social manipulation often have even longer lasting effects.

Friends and colleagues from the former East Germany, USSR, and various Soviet satellites have inevitably shared that the infusion of ideology, falsity, and mistrust into all of one’s relationships are some of the most painful memories of these regimes – often with ramifications that are passed down to later generations.

During these times, a dinner conversation with friends and family could be just as dangerous as speaking out in public. One always had to be cautious and watch what one said. A system of perverse incentives ensured that you could be denounced at any time, perhaps even by those closest to you. This combination of direct threats and indirect manipulation is what ultimately defined the full matrix of control.