Sunday, September 12, 2010

A lesson from history

Some memories are so painful that they overwhelm rational thought. Some symbols are so powerful that the slightest glimpse overrides all logic. So when Newt Gingrich likened the threat from Muslim extremist terrorism to the threat from Nazi Germany, all we saw was "Muslims = Nazis". He knows people and he knows symbols: he must have known this.

Take a deep breath, hold your nose and think for a moment about the Nazis. How did people like us find themselves murdering millions of their fellow men?

One answer is that the premise is false: they weren't like us, they were clearly monsters. After all, they murdered millions and we don't: QED. This seems too easy to me: both unlikely and unhelpful.

But if they were like us, what went wrong? We need to know, if we are to be sure that we won't wake up one morning and realise that we are guarding another death camp. (It is too much to hope, after Yugoslavia and Rwanda, that this won't happen again to someone else.)

There were a number of issues: a powerful grievance; a truly desperate economic situation; a charismatic saviour figure; an effective organisation. But there was one overriding factor that made everything else possible. Something that has been with us since before we came down from the trees. Christ aimed his most devastating parable at it.

It is this: our ability to conveniently forget that people outside our group are truly human.

This is what we need to watch for. All the time. So when Gingrich calls "Nazi" on Muslims, meaning that they are monsters rather than people, he is making the same mistake that the Germans did in the 1930s. And if I call him and his followers evil, then so am I.

So what am I to call them? It seems to me that the best and safest assumptions to make about other people are:
  • they are intelligent
  • they are moral. I would recognise their overall principles as good, though I may have different priorities
  • if their actions appear malign, there is something I don't understand
And my response must be based on principles:
  • even actions which are moral in "their" frame of reference can damage me, 
  • ends and means cannot be separated: if I wrong people, even in self defence, this will make the core problem worse
  • Sometimes we have to take our lumps.