Monday, July 18, 2011

The face of evil

“Evil is a little man afraid for his job” - Blue Thunder

There are dozens of quotes I could have used at the top of this piece, and I may include some of the better ones throughout. Because it seems we are so invested in the notion of a Hitler or a Manson as the face of evil that people need to come up with a lot of new and inventive ways to remind us that it simply isn’t the case.

Certainly, one particularly evil man can do a lot of damage if he so chooses, and the psychology of those individuals is very interesting. But the really large-scale evils, the world-changing ones, are enforced by the everyday people on the ground. Hitler may have been (one of) the brains behind the Holocaust but his arms and legs, his eyes and ears were the German people. And to be sure, not all of them participated in war crimes, but enough did. Not all of them turned a blind eye to things they shouldn’t have, but enough did.

Now: we must of course be fair to these people, and look through the lens of empathy. The state of the interbellum German economy meant that people were desperate. They were poor, often struggling to survive, and they needed scapegoats. They were willing to latch onto whatever a strong, eloquent public speaker threw at them, and when they found their scapegoat, their need for catharsis after this extremely difficult period meant they were more willing to allow extreme punishment. (Obviously I don’t need to tell you who I mean, but it is worth noting that by ‘extreme punishment’ I mean the ghettos, theft, beatings and forced relocation - the killing was less well-known to the public, although wilful ignorance may have played a part in this).

Now, I don’t say this to excuse what the Germans did, of course - quite the opposite. I say it because we need to understand how these acts of evil are allowed to happen, so that we can prevent them from happening again - as the saying goes, “evil prevails when good men fail to act”. In fiction of this genre we are generally presented with one of two archetypes - either the completely racist, 100% evil Nazi who takes pleasure in killing and cruelty, or the misunderstood Nazi who feels great sympathy for the Jews and is only following orders, and is therefore meant to be absolved.

We would do better to remember Oskar Schindler - the non-fictional example, who risked his life and spent every last penny of his fortune to save the lives of others. The one who saw through the bullshit propaganda he was presented with. The one who knew that the economic price was minuscule compared to the cost of human lives.

A more contemporary example is that of terrorists. We’re told all sorts of fanciful lies about them - my favourite is that they “hate freedom”, but another is that they’re cowards. This is sort of because people just want to bag them out, to make themselves feel better. To demonize them, because they are the Other, and therefore very different to us. Again, I in no way want to defend them or their actions, but if we are going to try to solve the problem at its root, we need to understand it properly, so hurling false insults at them serves no useful purpose.

They don’t hate freedom - they want freedom from what they perceive as Western meddling. They’re not cowards, really - hijacking a plane does take a reasonable amount of courage. If I were to comment on their actual motivations I would just be regurgitating what I’ve read from people better-versed in Middle Eastern politics than I, but suffice to say: if you get caught up in the pursuit of creative new insults for your enemies, you’re probably going to miss their actual faults.

This applies to less militaristic areas of society too. Asylum seekers are a major one - the ‘economic refugees’ and the ‘boats are too dangerous’ arguments both fall in a hole when you properly put yourself in their shoes, when you weigh the risks as they would. It doesn’t really confirm either way whether it’s something we should do, but people who say that if they were in the same situation, if they were that desperate, they wouldn’t jump on a boat too, are kidding themselves. We live in such prosperity that it’s hard to imagine living in the conditions they do; it’s downright impossible to imagine how the feeling builds up over years.

The current big ones, though, are live export and the carbon tax. I’m willing to accept that the cattle producers of the north were mostly unaware of the goings-on in Indonesian abattoirs until the Four Corners footage aired, even though I’m tipping MLA and a lot of people further down the line knew full well what was going on. But now that they do, do they hold some moral responsibility for allowing the practice to continue? Absolutely. The practice cannot continue without your input - sure, if we don’t, another country might jump into the breach, but as long as everyone is saying that, no progress can be made. Sure, if you boycott, all the other farmers will keep going - but the movement can’t gain momentum until the first person moves. No single snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche, after all.

In the real world, away from hypotheticals, I can accept compromise. I understand; you’re hard-working people who care for your animals, you didn’t intend for this to happen, and now you feel like you’re being punished. You depend on live export for a living, and you have people depending on that income; it’s a tall order to ask you to boycott live export by yourself, given the financial implications of it. But you need to do something. If you won’t boycott, you need to campaign. You need to demand better treatment. Lobby the government, get stuck into MLA, get the word out to the general public so their voices can be heard with yours. Or if you can’t get anything done within a reasonable time frame, you need to get out; find yourself another stream of income, so you can eliminate the economic excuses. Doing nothing is not an option, because every day that you perpetuate the status quo is another day you’re morally responsible.

The same goes for the carbon tax. Or, more accurately, for the case of acting on climate change in general - the quote-unquote greatest moral challenge of our generation. If we act, it will make no difference because nobody else will; we can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t afford to act; I’m on too tight a budget as it is, not another tax, etc. If it seems like I’m repeating myself, it’s only because I’m replying to the same, tired old arguments that are always used to justify selfishness. Most of these arguments can be dismissed purely by facts - we are far from the only country that is acting, and although we are certainly acting in a more comprehensive way than many poorer nations we must contribute to the momentum that will eventually sweep them along too.

As for the financial arguments? Well, they disgust me. Not only are they demonstrably not true - if you could potentially have been in any financial trouble as a consequence of this legislation, you have just effectively been given a large tax CUT, not a hike - but they smack of selfishness, and a lack of appreciation of just how lucky Australians are compared to the rest of the world.

And I don’t just mean compared to Third World countries - according to the OECD, among rich countries, we have the lowest government spending, the lowest taxes, among the lowest inequality of wealth, one of the most progressive tax systems…and to speak from personal experience, having spoken to Americans in similar situations to myself at the time (fresh out of high school, going to college, not getting much or any assistance from their parents) we have it made in the shade - tuition money loaned to us by the government at very reasonable rates, Centrelink payments for students so they can actually live while they study, minimum wages high enough to live off, unemployment benefits and Medicare in general…the list goes on. The media narrative about how much Australians are struggling is laughable, but some sense of entitlement makes us cling onto every last cent like a croc in a death roll.

My point, however, is this. We may currently be in vastly different circumstances, but deep down, we are really not that different to the people who put their fingers in their ears and allowed Jews to be carted off, to the people who are so desperate as to kill civilians to spark change, to the people who jump on boats to flee persecution. We like to think that we are - we like to think of them as monsters, as evil, as something completely different to us. As an extreme Other that we can’t relate to. But this is just the Fundamental Attribution Error playing tricks on us again, magnified by the fact that it’s a thoroughly uncomfortable truth that conflicts violently with most people’s self-images.

We are, at the core, the same as all of these people. We share the same urges, the same fears. We can be manipulated in the same ways, manipulated to do things we don’t imagine we’re capable of. And distancing ourselves from those kinds of people, Othering them into oblivion, thinking it could never happen to us, makes us less aware of the warning signs. And that makes us susceptible.

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