Good, evil on a spectrum
January 17, 2011 —
I think I am a kind person. Although I have been told repeatedly that I have a poor default face that is both scary and unapproachable, I have a hard time being blatantly mean. Regardless, under certain circumstances it is hard to say if I would maintain my calm demeanor.
While writing this column, I am watching a show about the infamous camp known as Auschwitz. A man with a kind face was just interviewed. He had white hair, pale eyes, and fragile skin that is characteristic of old age. This man looks as though he could be my friend’s grandpa or possibly just a nice man that lives next door with his elderly wife. Nothing about the person on the television says, or even hints, to anything about being a Nazi. However, this man is on the show because he was a member of the SS and is recounting a time when he and his fellow Nazi officers mercilessly killed a group of the Auschwitz prisoners executioner style.
Even though his story is so horrific in more ways than I can count, he speaks very calmly. The vagueness suggests that he is not recalling a single account, but has congealed together multiple stories, probably for convenience. When the interviewer asked the old man if he felt remorse now for his actions, he responded with a “No” as emotionless as when he told his story about how he took part in the murders of innocent people. He even began to justify his actions by explaining how a Jewish family had somehow deprived his family of economic opportunity when he was a young boy, an obvious sign that he raised in an anti-Semitic home. I am not sure if I am more disturbed by the words the old SS officer is saying or having me be face to face via my television with a calm-looking old man who admits to being a cold-hearted murderer.
It is easy to think of people as being either good or bad. From a young age, we read stories or watch movies with obvious protagonists and antagonists. Because we are being surrounded by such clear-cut images of good and evil it is easy to assume that our real world has a similar structure. There are even times in reality when the lines do seem transparently clear. Hitler was an antagonist. Mussolini was an antagonist.
But what of the old man currently on my television? I would say that he is a bad person. He killed innocent people and did so without any remorse. He is an anti-Semite, which most would agree that having that prejudice would move a person toward the antagonist side. Part of me recognizes, though, that he was put in a situation that could blind a person’s reasonable judgment. He was raised in an environment that was filled with hatred and then put in a position that required him to act violently toward his fellow human beings, even if he thought of them as something different than that.
Distinguishing between good and evil is much harder than we often try to make it. Instead of clear-cut lines, I think as humans, we operate on a spectrum. On one end is good and on the other end is bad. I think most people fall right in the middle with a few outliners at both of the extremes. The middle group basically consists of everyone who wouldn’t be considered a saint or a vicious dictator. This middle bunch has prejudices, some more extreme than others, helping spread the distribution into a bell curve. Most times there will not be much shifting, but if put in a high stress situation, I think the bell curve would make a significant shift toward the bad side.
Explaining my position really just comes down to hedonism. Deep down, we all have a natural tendency to do what is best for ourselves. We express this every day. We eat when we are hungry, we drink when we are thirsty and we make time for activities that increase happiness. Usually these things become routine and do not have a major impact on those around us. Sometimes though, in wake of a social movement or genocide, when our life or happiness is put in danger, we increase our concern for ourselves. We have more animalistic tendencies than we often like to think.
As I said earlier, the personal stories of the SS officer’s were absolutely horrific and actually exemplified the evil which we as humans are capable of being exposed to and performing. I simply choose to recognize that his decisions could have been skewed by hedonism which was perpetuated by a volatile situation. He was ultimately given an option between life and death: adhere to the Nazi party or be considered a dissident and risk becoming a prisoner. His willingness to participate in the Nazi party was probably also a product of his anti-Semitic views, which are not justified in any way. But I must admit, that if I raised in a home where that was the norm, it would be hard to shake that type of horrific mindset.
I cannot imagine myself mercilessly killing innocent people, but perhaps the old man on the television once thought the same thing about himself. What makes me uncomfortable while watching this show is not the SS officer, but not knowing what my actions might be if I had been put in his place.