As a Holocaust author and researcher, I appreciate a thorough examination of morality. Darkness, hatred and fear are common characteristics of human nature. Holocaust victims were faced with perfidious forces, deceit, brutality, cruelty, starvation, sickness and the death of loved-ones. Terror was the daily companion of concentration camp prisoners. What culture could allow this to happen to innocent men, women and children? How did so many people go along with this horrific plan to isolate and exterminate the Jews of Europe? How could millions more turn their backs to the immorality of using camps to exterminate an entire religious group? Some people were unaware of the nightmare on the other side of the fence. But, most Europeans (especially in Poland and Germany) could smell death regularly. The scent of burning flesh wafted over Eastern Europe for years, during the early–to-mid 1940’s. These people allowed Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jewish population – men, women and children. They lifted no finger to stand in the way. Many individuals saved Jews (especially Jewish children) at great risk to themselves. But they were the exception, not the rule. We learn nothing about ourselves if we do not examine this dark part of our psyche.
It is safe to say that large portions of the European population in the early 20th century disliked Jews. Pogroms were ubiquitous and largely ignored by society, the police and armed forces. In fact, in some pogroms the armed forces cooperated (Einsatzgruppen, Cossacks, etc.). Jews were significantly mistrusted, disliked and ostracized. They were the butt of jokes and the subject of innuendo. Yet, Jews represented no threat of any reasonable nature or definition to Europeans. At that time, Jews amounted to about 2% of the population in Europe; they possessed a very small percentage of the money, influenced no governments and had no armed forces or militia. They could not have been a threat to any potion of gentile Europe if they had wanted to. So, why did so many Europeans hate Jews? How could so many people find it easy to loathe millions whom they knew nothing about and that they had never met? Were they automatons, eagerly lapping up propaganda drivel proffered by Nazis? Or, were they intelligent humans, with the capacity to comprehend nuances of their society’s actions and still reach the conclusion that Jews were bad people who deserved to be rounded up, incarcerated and annihilated? Yes, these people acted in evil ways. But, what precipitated the hate? Was it a genetic predisposition or evil acquired later in life?
We are complex beings. I believe that there is a great deal more to us than the ubiquitous battleground of good versus evil. Most of us are not one or the other, but both. We are beautiful and ugly, soothing and terrifying, brutal and caring; we love and we despise. Unlike animals, humans are governed by principles and moral beliefs. We are not motivated by delusions of morality, as much as governed by them. So what brings a person to despise a stranger? Why do some people hate and fear those who are different in color, religion or ethnic origin? Why do so many people find it easier to hate than to tolerate?
My instinct tells me that some people acquire racism because they were taught at a young age to hate, by parents, siblings, relatives, friends or any other portion of their social network. At some point in their juvenile existence, they learned to despise minorities from people close to them. And, many of these racists continue to hate without questioning the veracity of their loathing. Being recognized as a bigot makes some individuals popular with desired social groups. Research reveals that a high percentage of racists are poorly educated. Yet, not all racists are ignorant or mentally slow. Some people with a postgraduate education delude themselves with manifestations of detestation towards minority groups. The dark side is filled with ignorance and deception. And, while many people are taught to be bigoted as children, some acquire it later in life, despite having a liberal, tolerant social network in their youth.
Could we be little different from the final vestiges of our primordial ancestors? Like many animals, humans originally had to fight and control others in order to maintain territorial superiority. Perhaps the need to be superior is an innate mental mechanism, acquired biologically. This Darwinian factor could be a reason for bigotry, although it may be difficult to prove. Evolution teaches us that we are governed by the principle of survival of the fittest. Is human behavior dominated by an inborn fear of others? Is social responsibility, tolerance and compassion simply an aberrant acquired social behavior, employed most often by liberals and religionists? Are the better angels of our conscience nothing more than bizarre adaptations to our dark and “natural” survival instinct?
I believe that people find it easy to hate because tolerance requires effort. Haters live with haters, in a community of malevolence. The more they hate, the more they are approved by their social group. Toleration would require analyzing each individual, based upon his or her merits, rather than despising every member of a race, color or religion. But, it is easier to hate. We despise those different from ourselves. And, we teach our descendants to do the same. This creates an endless, vicious cycle, guaranteed to generate bigoted progeny. Ironically, we hate in order to be valued by our peers.
But, we outsiders, who value tolerance, can break the bonds of bigotry one person at a time, with education, conversation and engagement across all media. We can use the Internet’s social networking and web sites to our advantage. We can fight the innate fear and bigotry of others by generating compassion for the individual, regardless of milieu. We can promote the significance of each person as a unique entity, with unlimited potential, rather than a member of a religious or social class, with preconceived expectations. We can promote tolerance of each individual’s soul. Only when we make an effort to understand and value the differences among us will racism and bigotry end. Only when we accept the value of each person, regardless of background, will our culture be meaningful and rewarding.
Fear may be at the heart of racism and bigotry. We fear that which we do not understand. We fear anyone who might be perceived as better than we are. We therefore use the tools of bigotry to become superior to others. Our fear drives us to prove that we are better than the “others” are. It feels good to be superior. Yet, in order for one person to feel superior, another must be subjugated. In order to feel better, we must dominate someone. The easiest way to dominate is to hate those who are not a threat. We use an innocent and defenseless group as our target for scapegoat. And, it feels good to make them live in fear. We rationalize the minimization of our fear by inflicting greater fear on the victim. If they are inferior, we must be better. We climb upon their social cadaver in order to feel superior.
Racism, hatred, intolerance and bigotry are the artifacts of fear. Eliminate fear and there will no longer be a need for the tools of bigotry. This is our challenge. We must convince the haters that they have no reason to fear minorities. This is the greatest and most noble challenge of our generation. The reward for success is tolerance, respect and mutual recognition. We can share our planet together as equals. This will be our legacy.
But, if we fail, our children will inherit a world dominated by the dark angels of our nature. If we fail, our progeny will be doomed to a life surrounded by fear, suspicion, hatred and death. We cannot end our generation sharing the same values as our early 20th century European ancestors had. We can and must be better than that. We must evolve into a tolerant society. Our children’s future depends upon it.
Charles S. Weinblatt
Author, Jacob's Courage