Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Old Song in a New Voice

“Most people don't believe something can happen until it already has. That's not stupidity or weakness, that's just human nature.”
― Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

As humanity moves along with the inevitable passage of time, many argue that humans have come a long way from being barbarians who eat to live and fight to die. Particularly with the creation of the first modern societies, ingrained believes about the deterministic nature of the human condition began to find more and more critics. It was no longer sufficient to explain events by citing the will of God or natural law. Modern beliefs and science inevitably control people’s lives and make them rational creatures that no longer rely on supernatural explanations of how the world operates. Certainly, as people in the modern world, we would like to believe that in many ways, we are superior to our ancestors. A closer and more in-depth look, however, at significant historical events can often alert us to the truth in the folkloric saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

The first practice to shed light on the particular way in which people have behaved and still do is the most important aspect of a liberal democratic society – the ability to vote. Most voters are not able to or simply do not find it important to look at the potential candidates as a whole with many different aspects. Rather, they prefer to vote based on one specific issue that they find really important in their personal lives. People make the choice often with no idea of what the consequences could be. As shown in the case of Germans during the reign of the Third Reich, for example, the outcomes of rational voting with one’s personal interests in mind were actually quiet dire. The truth, however, is that there is no way a person can determine what the outcome of casting a vote could really be. As Brustein simply puts it, if Germans knew in 1932 what they knew in 1945, the Nazis would never have had a huge following. What Brustein and other authors really highlight then is the idea that voting for someone like Hitler had nothing to do with being German. Rather, all people, regardless of nation and culture, vote with no way to foresee whom or what they have put in power.

The true nature of voting can certainly be observed in the present political climate in many countries, specifically the United States. Personal issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, permeate political discussions because these are what concern people and what impact their decision to vote for a candidate or not. The majority of people who vote have limited knowledge on politics or any other important issues. They choose a candidate based often on that candidate’s stance on a particular issue they are fond of and choose to ignore the rest of that candidate’s platform. Voters should realize the responsibility of their choices and that it is not simply another chore they have to check off their list by selecting the candidate with the same views on one particular issue. Responsibility should also be relevant when people realize that a wrong choice has been made. Avoiding claiming responsibility for a gruesome act committed on a large scale and pointing fingers left and right at different people and organizations is a sure sign that this will happen again.

Another particularity of human behavior that seems to transcend the boundaries of time and culture is the overwhelming support of professionals for mass killers such as Hitler. Authors, such as Lifton, bust the myth that evil has to always be in the form of a psychologically unstable, deranged, and senseless individual and instead, they stress that evil is often represented by intellectuals who are leaders in their fields and expected to have moral authority over the domain of helping others. The modern world we live in wants us to believe that for some reason, criminals are low-life, poor, uncivilized, and uneducated men. It is certainly comforting to assume that those who torture, kill, or simply hurt their fellow human beings belong to a group that unfortunately did not have a good life and as a result, turned into criminals. That might be true for some crimes on a small scale, but those who succeed in mass endeavors usually hold high education degrees and not from some random college, but from a well-respected, top-notch university. There are the killing professionals that Lifton refers to. What society considers intelligent people, usually those possessing an unassuming piece of paper that solidifies their achieved smartness, can often fall prey to their own intelligence and not only rationalize behaviors that would be deemed unacceptable, but also convince themselves that what they do is in the name of some higher ultimate goal. In terms of responsibility, it is clear that the subject of killer doctors poses concerns about the impact people in authority could have in the legitimation of a murderous regime. Professionals have the ethical responsibility to stand up for what is right and cannot be exonerated from what they did under the cover of their professional standing.  

A third theme that examines a specific event of the past and could be seen to have representations in the modern world is witchcraft. Despite the recent fascination with witches and vampires, courtesy to the Harry Potter series and the ever multiplying vampire shows and series, the attitude toward creatures believed to have subhuman powers have not always been a positive one. Historian Lyndal Roper, for example, focuses on the representation of the old hag that taunts Europe and analyzes the idea that there is just something about old, ugly, childless women that terrifies Europeans and turns them into brainless robots who run around screaming and chasing demons. A perfect example of the irrational fear of the old hag could be observed in the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel and Gretel. An important lesson the witch craze teaches us is that no matter what the demon of the day is, someone is responsible for misfortunes and that someone must be punished so that humanity is saved. Even though the witch craze years are long gone, the aspects of the event can clearly be seen through the lenses of societal hysterias. The time period might differ and the expression of evil is definitely different, but the overall theme repeats itself. Mass fear envelopes a society and suddenly, the witnesses are many and they all have proof that some evil deed has been committed. An excellent example would be the wave of child abuse cases that took over the United States in the 80s. What such stories of social hysterias teach is the great importance that must be placed on assuming responsibility to determine facts and investigate the evidence before jumping to conclusions that snowball into mass accusations of innocent people. It is the duty of society to protect its members, but part of that protection includes avoiding impetuously accusing and charging to quench the thirst for retribution before the facts have been established.

A fourth practice that perfectly demonstrates how the more things change, the more they stay the same is a topic of specific interest to me: slavery. An examination of the history of human rights reveals that even while claiming equality for all, all great societies have in one way or another rationalized unequal treatment. Consequently, even those who strongly support the establishment and preservation of certain rights that all humans are entitled to will somehow find a sound reasoning that some populations are sub-human and as such, do not deserve to enjoy the luxury of those basic human rights. This rationalization has fostered the maintenance of slavery not only in the past but also in the contemporary modern world of supposed conveniences and freedom for all.

A popular theme in the physical sciences relates to the conservation law of energy and matter; according to that law, matter or energy never really disappear and instead, they simply shift from one form to another. The same idea could certainly be applied to the social sphere of human existence. Examining past events, it is hard not to point out the similarities with some of the serious issues we deal with in the present time. A look to the past, however, should not be done with the hope that we can learn from past mistakes and be better at predicting the future in order to finish with a different outcome. An examination of the past should actually be about learning the importance of responsibility and that every choice we make and every action we engage in has an impact on a personal, local, national, or global level. Hitler did not run on the platform of promising to kill millions of people; instead, he promised to clean up the nation, strengthen it, and return it to its proper moral condition. After all, the four themes discussed above clearly identify that people are not good at predicting future events and often, they refuse to believe that there is even a remote possibility that a certain event will happen. By the time they are proven wrong and learn their lesson, it is often too late. We can see the Holocaust as the Holocaust only after it had happened, not during the time it was happening. The burden is then to bear responsibility and acknowledge that sometimes what we choose or act on does not have a significant impact and sometimes, just sometimes, what we choose or act on can drastically change the lives of others in a very negative way.  
-       Krasi

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