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So, there’s a thing I’d been kind of thinking about for the past couple weeks, and it seems to me that it’s kind of become relevant in a really horrible way.

At one point, a few weeks ago, someone in my hearing made the observation that the Nazis had so utterly failed to have human empathy that they might be considered more human-shaped machines than real human beings. I took polite issue with the statement at the time. I will take more public, emphatic issue with it now.

Here’s the thing–the Nazis? Those concentration camp guards, the people who dug and filled in mass graves, led prisoners to gas chambers, all of that? They were not inhuman monsters. They were human beings, and they weren’t most of them that different from anyone you might meet on your morning walk, or in the grocery store.

I know it’s really super uncomfortable to look around you and realize that–that your neighbors, or even you, yourself, might, given circumstances, commit such atrocities. Your mind flinches from it, you don’t want to even think about it. It can’t be. You know that you’re a good person! Your neighbors and co-workers are so nice and polite and decent. You can’t even imagine it, so there must have been something special, something particularly different about the people who enthusiastically embraced Hitler.

I’m here to tell you there wasn’t.

I’m quite certain those people who committed terrible atrocities were very nice to each other! Super polite and nice to other good Aryan citizens of the Reich, and certainly to their families. Of course they were! They were perfectly nice human beings.

It wasn’t that they were incapable of empathy, of any human feeling. It was more a matter of where they drew the boundaries of that empathy.

Remember that the next time you find yourself saying “I’m not racist, it’s just…” or “I’m not racist, but…” because that just and that but are where the borders of your own empathy lie. And maybe you’re okay with those being the boundaries–but, look, when someone calls you on that, don’t try to pretend it’s not there.

We’ve most of us learned the first part of the lesson really well–the Nazis were horrible! Racism is bad!–without having learned the next part of the lesson: no one thinks they’re a villain, not even Nazis. After all, those Jews were a real threat to the Aryan race! They had to do what they did.

No one thinks they’re racist, because racists are bad, and I’m not bad! I’m a good, decent person. It’s just that….

Yeah. Right.

Think about that. I’m not just talking to folks who were willing to vote for a flagrantly racist, willfully ignorant, obviously unqualified and unstable narcissist for president for what they keep insisting were totally not racist reasons. I’m also talking to folks who are dismayed to see said incompetent unstable narcissist set to take office but who say everyone should calm down, it won’t be that bad. Because this is the USA, not freaking Germany.

There was nothing special about the German people, nothing supernaturally evil about Hitler. They were all human beings, and it can happen here, and it’s far more likely to happen here if we pretend otherwise, because it’s the thing you won’t look at about yourself that will lead you right over the cliff you keep insisting isn’t really there, all the while you’re tumbling to the rocks below.

Stop telling yourself it can’t happen here. (A registry for Muslims? With maybe some kind of ID so we know who all the Muslims are? Totally reasonable, totally un-racist, and after all we’re Americans, so it’ll all be fine.)

(Read that thread)

Stop acting as though calling some action “racist” is beyond the pale, unthinkably horrible to do to someone. Stop assuming that the people you know and talk to everyday can’t be racist because after all they’re so polite to you. Stop assuming that “racist” means “inhuman monster.” The end result of doing this is to make it impossible to call anyone or anything racist that isn’t cross-burning, actual lynching, Nazi-levels of racism. And sometimes not even then, as we’ve seen in recent weeks.

Which makes it impossible to do anything about racism–prevent it, address it, anything. Even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves. Which allows it to grow unchecked.

It can happen here. Flagrant racists are often very polite and decent people (so long as you’re white). The worst monsters of history were not inhuman monsters. They were all too human.

6 Responses

  1. Erica

    This is a really well-stated piece. I want to add that it’s also possible for people who are racist (or otherwise bigoted) to be very polite and decent to, or even love, individual people who aren’t white, straight, male, Christian (or otherwise the same as they are). Yet they still support candidates and policies that would deprive these friends and loved ones their rights and protections under the law. It’s an odd disconnect that I’m struggling to understand.

    1. S
      Steve

      I was just thinking about that too. I think that racists (like all human beings) have ideas and expectations about how society works. If you fall into line with those ideas and expectations (which is pretty easy if you’re white, harder if you’re not) then they can be perfectly nice people. They just have unreasonable ideas about how other people should behave, and they get angry when people don’t follow their expectations.

      I’m not sure how well that describes things, but that’s what I thought of when I read the post.

  2. C
    Chris

    The lines between “us” and “them” are ever-shifting and depend greatly on context. The possessives “my” and “our” also enter the picture. (Whatever)-centrism seems baked into our nature as a species, and it takes conscious effort to look beyond it. Anything that takes effort is likely to be unpopular with people who already feel unfairly burdened.

    To paraphrase an old joke: “You’re from earth? I’m from earth! Yeah? What exit?” Expand your context far enough, and you realize we’re all in this together, regardless of our differences (innate or otherwise).

    None of us chose our parents, our skin color, our height, the texture of our hair, the nation or continent of our birth, or a wide range of other circumstances in our lives. Using them to divide “us” from “them” is entirely artificial. Hating based on them is folly at best.

  3. p
    peer

    Thanks for the article. Its a great one!
    The thing is: There are still “Right extremists” in Germany. Of course there are (I dont know if there is a country without them). They usually dont think themselves as “Nazis” or “Racists” or even “Far right”. The do claim that they hate the left. They do claim, they are “slightly right”, but they always go on length why they arent racistt/Far right/ neonazis. That racisms is not being against foreigner “if its reasonable”. As long its not killing, its not really racism, right? And if it is, well, thats not OK, but really, he was just defending his country and…

    Yeah. Racist rarely see themselves as racist. And modern nazis can be nice people. At least towards other nazis.

  4. Anna Feruglio Dal DAn

    Here’s the thing: for most of my life (class of ’66 here) I have heard how people in my grandparents’ generation were shocked that the Germans, the GERMANS of all people, the countrymen of Bach, Beethoven, Kant, Hegel, Goethe – that they could turn out to be inhuman. The Germans? With all that sensitive poetry? Not possible. Surely not.

    And I moved to Great Britain because I had some of the same romantic notions about it. The country that gave birth to Amnesty International, which took in the kindertransport, the country of Wilberforce and Bertrand Russell and Orwell. British people, decent, police goes around unarmed, the rule of law… you know. A safe space.

    Then Brexit came, and I remembered who it was that started the trilateral trade, who invented concentration camps.

    But mostly I felt a sudden kinship with all those people who saw Mitteleuropa go down in flames and stood there in disbelief (often until they were marched off to the cattle trucks). Stefan Zweig committing suicide over the collapse in horror of the world he knew is suddenly, chillingly, a lot more understandable.

  5. J
    Jean Skyborough

    Exactly!
    It is a terrifying fact that any one of us can do such things in certain circumstances. And possibly e en believe we are right.

    And more terrifying, that virtually none of us will have the courage to stand against it.

    it is far too easy to focus on ones own life and not notice the injustices that persist around us. And far too difficult to do anything to change them.