"We are each burdened with prejudice; against the poor or the rich, the smart or the slow, the gaunt or the obese. It is natural to develop prejudices. It is noble to rise above them."
I am reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
I'm having a very difficult time with this book.
I do not mean I am not enjoying it. On the contrary, I am enjoying it very much. But it is a 'hard read'. Not the text itself; Zusak has a lyrical and poetic style of writing that I find pleasing and even delectable. I find myself going back rereading passages, savouring them, rolling them around in my mouth like a delightsome chocolate.
However, the story is set in Germany. Nazi Germany. And I have always had a hard time with this subject. I find it uncomfortable.
And this discomfort is increased, folded over upon itself, inexplicably grown in weight and force because of comments I encounter daily from acquaintances and friends.
This distress, this discomfiture is not an abstraction directed at a single political ideal or group. Yes, it is easy to be horrified by what the Nazis did to Jews and others. But for me it has always been a question of the why and the how behind it. Why would a group of people target another group of people for such treatment? And how could it ever be justified?
This isn't a new thought.
And I'm certainly not unique in pondering it. In fact, Dr. Stanley Milgram sought answers to similar questions in 1961. I remember reading about Dr. Milgram when I was in high school.
The Milgram Experiment.
In a way, knowing about Milgram and his experiments troubles me more than any cogitation of Nazi Germany. It is disturbing.
It would be comforting to hold the proof in our hands that what occurred in Europe in the depravity of the 1930s and 40s, that the systematic killing of Jews, Romani, Soviets, Polish, homosexuals, people with disabilities and others – a number totaling between 11 million and 17 million people – was an aberration confined in both space and time.
But it is not.
Milgram did not find that the capacity to set aside morality was confined to Germans. Or officers in a war. Or people who lived in 1933. No, he found that most all of us have a willingness to obey an authority figure who instructs us to perform acts that conflict with our personal conscience.
"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.” --"The Perils of Obedience", Stanley Milgram 1974
I find this a terrible weakness of human nature. I have often struggled with this inherent flaw within myself. But it is a hard thing to locate, pin down, eradicate. Even more disturbing is that this blind obeisance to authority is a symptom. It is an indication of an even greater fault in human psychology.
As described by the Asch Paradigm, there is a fundamental relationship between a group and an individual. Put simply, a person who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the individual's behavioral model.
That doesn't sound too bad. If something is beyond my abilities or outside of my level of expertise, I rely on my group – peers, religion, state, etc – to decide the right and the wrong. However, stop to think a moment of what all falls in the category of what is beyond our abilities and outside of our expertise. It can easily become a catchall.
You know, like not decrying when the government takes away the Jews. Or rounds up the Japanese to put in "War Relocation Camps”. (In point of fact, that last little gem was not perpetrated by some foreign government 'over there'. It was something we did. Here. In the land of the free.)
We like belonging to groups. We seek out and attach ourselves to them based on religion and politics and even sports. And none of us has the ability or expertise we pretend. That's why they are comforting. They validate us. They empower us. And in times of doubt – an all too common occurrence – they tell us what to do.
That's pretty easy to see in an example like Nazi Germany. A country of people swept away by the Asch Paradigm. A county of people “just following orders.”
But if you look around, you can also see it in the everyday way we treat one another. And it is why an acquaintance jeering at someone in a different political party is disturbing to me. Friend X spewing vitriol at Friend Y based on political affiliation brings a single thought to mind. It's wrong to hate. Except those people, of course.
By reducing another human to just a member of a group you make it very convenient to bow to that very human tendency to give away your moral and ethical responsibilities. Your behavioral model is based on the group, not on your own morality. As one subject of the Milgram Experiment said later of his experiences, “Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority.” And a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, quality that makes us human is that we have freewill. We can choose between right and wrong. Good and evil.
We just need to become aware when we abnegate it.