Monday, May 14, 2012

What's worse: doing evil or standing by?

In the wake of grandmother's death and election year politics, I am left with one huge question: is it worse to do something evil and horrible or to have stood by and allowed it without question?

My grandfather, who I only remember as the scary man who used to make me touch the taxidermied animals, was a horrible, violent, abusive person with a deep streak of paranoia and superiority. The damage he caused has lived on long after his death 24 years ago. My grandmother stood by and let everything happen, and even after his death, insisted that he was wonderful.  People I know and love have stood by silently when they see injustice; they've refused to offering a dissenting voice, even when they know people around them agree.  People ignore corporations using sweatshops to produce electronics and clothing, when they could do something about it.  I've seen people look the other way while another human being is humiliated, hurt or threatened.

The question of how people simply allow bad people to do bad things has bothered me all my life.  I don't understand how the people of Nazi Germany could allow thousands of people to be put to death. I don't know how Americans can support oppressive regimes as our allies.  I don't know how fans can defend abusive stars.  Is it cowardice?  Is a secret pleasure derived from seeing other people abused?  Is it willful blindness, a desire to never see anything bad? I see this same phenomenon happening as people step into the voting booths to make decisions about other people's lives (electing lawmakers is just that, as is voting for amendments or referendums) based on their personal beliefs.

For me, to know about abuse, oppression and injustice means I must speak up against it, even when I know nobody will do anything about it.  If I don't, I can't look at myself in the mirror.  Doing something, anything, even if it proves in effective, is better than inaction, better than looking away; doing nothing, saying nothing is complicity, which makes me guilty of the crime, too.


  1. These are vexing questions indeed.

    On the family level, family members have these blind spots. They can't seem to override the biological/hormonal programming to see the truth about someone. And the family members who can override the biological imperative through the use of higher reasoning and emotional intelligence are often derided as "crazy" "emotional" "weak" "has issues" whatever the pejorative that's used to put someone away in a box, demoted as someone not worth respecting or listening to.

    On a social level, there is a decided lack of emotional intelligence and instinctual wisdom in modern Western society. Could be the price of the success of an advanced society with a large middle class. If things are smooth our instincts can fall asleep. Combine that with the anti-intellectual and the promotion of a lack of self-awareness in society and you've got a high level of ignorance. People simply don't want to know things, about themselves and others not when there are many enticing distractions.

    On a government/national level, especially Nazi Germany, you're dealing with extremely sophisticated propaganda and media manipulation calculated to create fear and hatred in a population. Concentration camps were presented as work camps or even "re-education" centers while the outright extermination camps were kept secret. In some cases, when the prisoners arrived at camps, they were forced to write postcards to relatives and friends saying something along the lines of "It's nice here, can't wait to see you!" Which is itself a profoundly misleading and evil act.

    It comes down to awareness, whether people are willing to get an education and take that educational seriously, to be emotionally intelligent, and to be mindful of the dark side of human nature.

  2. I have a dear friend who was born during the Anschlus (sp?) in Austria. Her father was a meteorologist who was working for the Nazis (unwillingly). My friend, I., was born prematurely and was set aside to die, as premature babies were too weak for the Aryan super-race. After 42 hours, her mother basically decided "screw the Nazis" and began feeding her. When she was 4, she discovered the Allied pilot that her parents had hidden in the pigeon coop. As an adult, she said she asked her mother, finally, why they (and their generation) had not taken an active stance against the Nazis. She said her mother was silent a long time, and finally said "What would have happened to our children if we were taken to the camps?" "I." began collecting survivor stories, and found that it was a recurring theme: the fear of what would happen to the Austrian children. The people of her generation, she says, carry a guilt of "if not for me, my parents would have...".

    1. I find collective guilt to be an interesting phenomenon, and yet, in many places, it's not enough to prevent younger generations from repeating the mistake. Thanks for sharing your friend's story, Gaia.


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