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….
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.)
When I first decided to research the Klan, I pulled all of the books on the Klan that I could find: histories & ethnographies.
— Kelly J. Baker (@kelly_j_baker) November 16, 2016
(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.