Transcending Human Darkness
By Caitlin Oliver
Amherst, NY


 

“Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty”

Stanislaw J. Lee


The impact of one snowflake is indiscernible, yet a multitude of snowflakes, under the right conditions, can create a force of nature capable of obliterating everything in its path. In the context of crimes against humanity, individual actions or inaction can quickly gather force, with tragic consequences. Like the snowflake, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are not guilty when atrocities such as the Holocaust unfold. However, no one can claim the moral high ground simply because they were not a perpetrator; even unspoken disapproval becomes tacit approval.

The Holocaust remains relevant to this generation because the social and political conditions that allowed it to reach its full malevolence in the mindless annihilation of a despised “enemy” have been manifested again and again. If history is a teacher, the majority of students remain singularly unmoved by its lessons. The notable exceptions are the despots and tyrants who have resurrected elements of the Holocaust in almost all corners of the globe for their own ruthless purposes.

The Holocaust remains the most infamous example of mankind’s ability to rationalize the “extermination” of a people. The Nazis did not invent evil, but they almost certainly perfected its practice. Their efficiency and skill in implementing “the final solution”, while silencing voices of dissent, remains a text book example for all modern day extremists. The Nazi mastery of social control, propaganda, powerful imagery, intimidation and violence has been emulated repeatedly. Sadly, anti-Semitism is just one shade in a palate of exclusionary doctrines leading to the dehumanization of the “inferior” group. The lessons of the Holocaust are universal, and they pertain to all people, not only Jewish people. Race, political beliefs, religion, tribal affiliation, nationality, gender and sexual orientation have all proven to be footholds for intolerance and extremism.

Second, the Holocaust teaches that tolerating injustices against an excluded group opens the door to even more egregious acts. The spread of these atrocities is aided by a self–serving and complacent population. As Martin Niemoeller’s poem, inscribed on the U.S Holocaust Memorial (“United States”) so eloquently states;

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.

In addition, the Holocaust shines a penetrating light into the darker side of human nature. While it is morally comfortable for us to believe that these acts are the work of “evil” individuals and their minions, the reality is that almost all individuals can abandon their moral compass under specific circumstances. It is this observation that gives us the greatest discomfort. We all want to believe that we would be stronger, less susceptible, and even heroic, in stressful situations. Unfortunately the evidence indicates that many fail to live up to their own self image when challenged.

This observation has been supported by several well documented experiments by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, in which “normal” people acted in ways that they themselves would have previously thought unthinkable. In 1961, Milgram studied his subject’s willingness to follow the orders of an authority figure. Volunteers were asked to administer what they believed were powerful electric shocks to another individual (who was actually an actor). Approximately 65% of the participants administered what they were told was a potentially lethal shock (“Transmitting”). In 1971, Zimbardo created a prison environment to study the psychological impact of being assigned the role of prison guard or prisoner. Within six days the experiment was ended because the “prison guards” had begun to exhibit signs of sadism, while the “prisoners” began to suffer emotional and physical breakdowns (“Zimbardo”).

The outcomes of these experiments do not exonerate those who perpetrate evil. Many have attempted to deflect responsibility for their inhumane actions by claiming to have been “just following orders”. The notion of free choice and individual accountability cannot render such people blameless. However, by acknowledging these unsettling tendencies in human nature, and especially ourselves, we can prepare counter-measures against mindless obedience. This human flaw was exposed by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Regardless of our views of the detainees, we must acknowledge that they were tortured in the absence of any finding of guilt, against our principals of law, and in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Some may conclude that there can be no solution, because human nature conspires against our best intentions. We see recent events, such as Darfur, where economic interests and political expedience are clearly taking precedence over human rights. As human beings, there is no opting out. If our leaders or other countries will not do the right thing, we must nonetheless continue to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard.
There are few people who can honestly say that they have not, at some point, remained passive in the face of racist or intolerant remarks. If we are to prevent the avalanche from gathering force we must hold ourselves accountable for our own actions, or lack thereof. When we hear or see incidents of intolerance, we must stop it immediately, and state with conviction; “I do not accept that way of thinking”.

If the Holocaust was the end product of a concerted and sophisticated program of indoctrination, then why should we not use a similar approach for the public good? The Nazis realized that youth are malleable and highly impressionable. As we know, young children are much more accepting of all people, regardless of religion or culture. Only after repeated exposure to extreme messages do they grow into bigoted adults. Therefore, by targeting youths early and often with messages of tolerance, we can eliminate a major springboard to the cycle of discrimination and hatred. Teachings at my previous school required us to take World Religion. In spite of my misgivings, I came to appreciate its value, and by the end of the course I realized that “all great mountains touch the same sky”.

While science is important for the advancement of our civilization, the humanities are essential to its preservation. It is difficult for an individual to remain narrow-minded when he/she has been schooled in critical thinking. Developing independent thought must be a primary goal of our education. We need to encourage this generation to be free-thinkers and to nurture a healthy skepticism. As C.P. Snow wrote in Either-Or - “When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion” (“Lucifer”).

Finally, we must celebrate examples of heroism and situations where individuals have refused to mindlessly conform to wrong thinking. The decision to act heroically is a choice that may be thrust upon us at some point in our lives. If we take the time to learn the lessons from the Holocaust, we will be far better prepared to stand firmly against the avalanche.

 

Works Cited


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ". Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists…” Holocaust Encyclopedia. 27 Apr. 2008http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007392
Transmitting the Wisdoms of the Ages. “Obedience to Authority: The Experiment by Stanley Milgram”. 28 Apr. 2008 http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/psychology/milgram_obedience_experiment.html
Zimbardo, G. Phillip. Stanford Prison Experiment. “A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment Conducted at Stanford University”. 29 Apr. 2008 http://www.prisonexp.org/
The Lucifer Effect. “Book Quotations”. 29 Apr.2008 http://www.lucifereffect.com/about_quotations.htm

 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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