Monday, April 11, 2011

How to Prevent Genocide?

Most people agree that the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews was the greatest crime of the twentieth century.

Since that time people have been wracking their brains-- and soothing their consciences-- by trying to figure out how  to prevent genocide from ever happening again. It is fair to say that these efforts have not been very successful.

Liberals suggest that genocide can be prevented when thinks and feels as a liberal thinks and feels.

How does one learn to think the right thoughts and to feel the right feelings? Clearly some form of mind control would be required, to say nothing of massive doses of therapy.

If everyone had had enough therapy, there would be no more genocide.

That is the logic behind many of these efforts. It is behind the effort I will examine today.

I will say off the top that anyone who believes it should be examined… and not by a therapist.

As we all know, Nazis and other genocidal murderers tend to dehumanize their victims. If you can classify people as sub-human, and as enemies of the state, then you can supposedly eradicate them with impunity.

Even though this is not a new idea, today we see it at work in David Livingstone Smith’s new book: Less than Human. An excerpt and an article about the book are here.

According to Smith: “What is it that enables one group of human beings to treat another group as though they were subhuman creatures?

“A rough answer isn't hard to come by. Thinking sets the agenda for action, and thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity. The Nazis were explicit about the status of their victims. They were Untermenschen — subhumans — and as such were excluded from the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together. It's wrong to kill a person, but permissible to exterminate a rat. To the Nazis, all the Jews, Gypsies and others were rats: dangerous, disease-carrying rats.”

Smith is implying that if we can change the way people think, we can change the way they act.

I have discussed this principle on occasion. It is a basic precept of the therapy culture. It assumes that if we can change the way people think and feel, there will be no more genocide and no more violence.

As very serious philosophers have asserted, the assumption that thought proceeds and guides action is a fundamental error.

If Wittgenstein had not told us, we could also refer to the generations of therapy patients who were induced to change their thinking, only to discover that their new insights had no demonstrable effect on their symptoms or behavior.

If therapists have discovered anything, they should have learned that bad habits have a life of their own. Their continuing existence is impervious to thought.

Aside from that, as even Smith acknowledges, any time a country fights a war, it must dehumanize its enemies.

Would the Allies have been able to mobilize great armies to defeat Nazi Germany if they had not, at some level, dehumanized Hitler and his henchmen?

When Smith declares that all criminals must dehumanize their victims, he is ignoring the possibility that criminals are happy to acknowledge the humanity of their victims... because they want to strip them of it, along with their dignity.

It seems strange to have to say it, but there's dehumanization and there's dehumanization. Some people are dehumanized unjustly while others have earned their place among the scum of the earth.

Of course, it requires a minimal level of judgment to reach such a conclusion. But that would make you judgmental, and we all know that the therapy culture has declared it bad to be judgmental.

Smith manages to get so tangled up in his liberal pieties that he welcomes the Nazis into the protected group of full humans: “What's most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It's that they were ordinary human beings.”

Here he is clearly wrong. If the Nazis were just ordinary human beings, why was it right and good to kill them in such large numbers? Why was it a moral necessity to defeat them? Why did we think that we would spare no effort or expense to destroy the Third Reich. And why did Germans bear a mark of opprobrium in the post-war period.

If we had recognized the monstrosity of the Nazi regime, perhaps we would have intervened earlier. Is it possible that we were waiting for Hitler to see the error of his ways because we thought that he was an ordinary human being, just like the rest of us?

Then again, Smith might be implying that ordinary human beings can all become genocidal maniacs under the right circumstances.

With that point I respectfully disagree. I see no advantage in indicting the human species on the basis of aberrant behavior committed by people who have no right to be included in any human community.

I have commented on occasion that I believe that the concern with everyone‘s “humanity” is one of our greatest illusions. Mostly, because “humanity” is an abstraction.

When Smith talks about: “the system of moral rights and obligations that bind humankind together” he is promulgating an illusion.

In truth, there is no system of moral rights and obligations that binds humanity together. Humanity is not bound together. It is divided into different tribes and nations. All human beings gain their identity by belonging to defined social groups, not because they feel like they are part of humanity. And they maintain their membership by following the rules for good behavior.

While we’re at it, who wrote up this system of moral rights and obligations? Are they inscribed in our DNA? Were they granted by God? Were they dictated by a committee of the United Nations?

And, does Smith leave any place for free choice in obeying or disobeying moral injunctions? And what kinds of sanctions does he want to visit on those whose behavior is so egregious that they should never be allowed back into human community?

Do we want to punish them in the court room? Or do we prefer to ostracize them, confer the status of pariah on them? Keep in mind that you cannot prosecute a nation. You make it an outlaw nation, however.

If we do ostracize people, we are treating them as unfit for social intercourse. And that means that we are treating them as monsters, not as ordinary human beings.

As I have mentioned, and as Smith demonstrates clearly, once you define everyone, even Nazis, as part of humanity, then your membership in the human species has nothing to do with your conforming to a system of moral obligations and duties.

If you can commit genocide and still find liberal thinkers who are willing to allow you to belong to humanity, what reason would you have to behave better?

Having the right kind of warm and fuzzy feelings is insufficient to prevent you from committing genocide. You need to know that you and yours will suffer the most severe moral opprobrium, and this this malediction will be transmitted from generation to generation.

Otherwise the only way you can stop it is by going to war.

If the question on the table today is: How can we best prevent genocide?, the answer is: by making it prohibitively expensive. That is, by raising the cost.

Making everyone into a liberal idealist seems like the wrong approach. After all, no culture was more idealistic than pre-Nazi Germany.

Nazi genocide arose out of a culture that had been, for over a century, the breeding ground for the most advanced idealistic thinking. No one spawned more abstract thinking that German philosophers.

Nazi genocide arose out of a culture that was intellectually and aesthetically as sophisticated as any on the planet.

In fact, Prof. Modris Eksteins suggested in his seminal work, Rites of Spring, that the Nazis committed genocide because they wanted reality to conform to their aesthetic.

When you try to make the world conform to a metaphysical abstraction, that is, to make the world your canvas, you are more likely to accord yourself the right to eliminate those whose appearance does not fulfill the terms of the idealistic, and aesthetic, vision.

Loving humanity is an empty slogan. Loving all people in the same way regardless of what they do is a sign of moral depravity. Loving an idea, to the point of idolatry, is a step on the path to thinking that the lives of your friends and neighbors are nothing very special.

Perhaps Germany would not have committed the horror of genocide if it had simply kept in mind the simple Biblical injunction, in the King James version: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

It’s not just that the Nazis did not respect the humanity of their victims. It’s that they perpetrated their crimes against their own neighbors. Doesn’t that make theirs a special crime, a crime against the Biblical injunction, an injunction to community, not an injunction to treat everyone as though everyone were just an ordinary human?

People who turn on their neighbors, who betray them to genocidal maniacs, are not just ordinary human beings. Treating them as such gives them an undeserved pass.


David Foster said...

"Is it possible that we were waiting for Hitler to see the error of his ways because we thought that he was an ordinary human being, just like the rest of us?"

Yes, some people did think that way, including these clergymen.

David Foster said...

Both the desire for perfection and the desire to live at the peaks of experience can lead to violence, up to and including genocide. This is demonstrated vividly in one of Germany's greatest works of literature, Goethe's "Faust." "The protagonist seeks for himself "a dynamic process that will include every mode of human experience, joy and misery alike, and that will assimilate them all into his self’s unending growth." He wants to "make a difference." The outcome of his efforts is summarized by the Chorus:

That ancient truth we will recite
Give way to force, for might is right
And would you boldly offer strife?
The risk your house, estate–and life

See my post on ambition in Goethe's Faust

Anonymous said...

Terrific piece!!!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, David, for linking to two great posts.

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So, I do not really believe it will have effect.