Sunday, May 29, 2011

Daoist Morality

I recently got around to watching the movie "The Reader". For those of you who might not have heard of it, this movie is about a young man who has an affair with an older woman who turns out to have been a guard at a Nazi concentration camp. He only finds this out years later after both have gone their separate ways and he attends her trial while attending law school.

It is a very good movie and I found myself absolutely captivated by Kate Winslet's performance as Hanna Schmitz, the Nazi guard. Indeed, I was so struck by the film that I went on to read a translation of the novel it is based upon.

The story is basically a mechanism for the author to deal with a key problem for Germans of his generation: how to deal with an older generation that was tarnished by co-operation with the Holocaust. This is not a hypothetical situation. Almost everyone of a certain generation in Germany has had the opportunity to wonder what his parents did during the Holocaust.

In the book, the narrator never does come to peace with Hanna. He has a connection to her that he cannot sever, but on the other hand, he refuses to allow himself to manifest any sort of human connection with her. As a result, he spends his life denying her the friendship that he feels he should offer her and feeling like he has betrayed her. In both the movie and the book Hanna commits suicide shortly before she is released from prison after the narrator rebuffs her attempt to connect during a visit. The book ends with him still unable to sort out his feelings, in contrast, the movie ends at her grave where he has finally made his decision and honours her by telling his daughter about his relationship.

The book is probably a more honest statement of how many Germans feel, but the movie has a more hopeful ending.

A key scene in the movie and book both takes place after Hanna's death where the narrator takes on a task left to him in her suicide note. Hanna wants her entire life savings given to one of the few surviving victims of her particular camp. The woman adamantly refuses to accept any of the money, as she feels that this might look like some sort of atonement. The idea is that there is no room for forgiveness in the heart of the victims.

This is very similar to a core theme in Simon Wiesenthal 's book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. It too is about an SS killer, but in this case it is a dying man who is asking forgiveness from a specific Jewish inmate. (This is a true incident that happened to Wiesenthal.) The story is told in a short book and various people from different religious traditions are asked to comment on whether or not they would be willing to forgive if they were confronted by this situation.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that when people refuse to forgive even the most vile behaviour they are operating on a flawed conception of what it means to be a human being. That is, the conventional view of human beings is to see them as having souls, free will and the constant opportunity to choose between two very obvious and different sets of actions, one right and the other wrong. I come from a different perspective. I see people as being dominated by peer pressure, strong emotional tendencies stemming from our past experiences, and social ideas that form the language and structure of our thought processes.

People think that it is "obvious" that it is evil to torture and kill other human beings. But if we look at recent history, I can see people who in support of what they believed are the noblest ideals were willing to kill thousands in terrorist attacks and for others in support of other (but, I would argue very similar) ideals were willing to authorize torture and trample on the civil liberties enshrined in their government's constitution. Murdering millions is not the same as water-boarding a few suspected terrorists and wire-tapping lawyers. But Eastern Europe in the 1940's was not the same world we inhabit now.

Eugenics was not considered the raving of lunatics, but rather the latest in science. My mother, who trained as a nurse at this time, used to tell me once in a while about how the "dull, subnormals" were going to eventually destroy the human race because they were out-breeding the more intelligent. Obviously, this is something that she picked up during the few weeks she spent learning about social issues. The idea of protecting the race from "dilution" was so much a part of the air, that even the political elite of Canada were willing to send "defective" children to schools where they were sterilized, without consent. The province of Alberta had a regulation that gave a board of appointed "experts" the right to force sterilization on people they deemed defective and therefore, a threat to the gene pool.

This is just part of the context that people like Hanna Schmidt would have inhabited. Add to that a background that discouraged curiosity, encouraged conformity, an abusive background that may have triggered inappropriate violent emotions, etc. and we have the making of a violent prison guard. I would argue that if many of us were to have had exactly the same background, context and set of circumstances we might end up doing much the same thing.

Indeed, I happen to believe that there actually is a Holocaust happening right now before us. That is, our behaviour to the environment will eventually be viewed with much the same horror that we feel towards the Nazis. I suspect that ordinary Germans were about as oblivious to the plight of the Jews as many people of today are about the prospects of global climate change. Many people refused to believe the stories they heard and what they saw just as many people today refuse to believe the warnings of scientists.

Ultimately, I think the thing to remember is that there are no rules sent down from on-high by God----for God doesn't exist. Nor is there any sort of immortal soul that tells us what the "right" or "wrong" thing might be in any given situation. Instead, all we have are the circumstances of individual life and culture that influence our consciousness. They flow like a river through time. We call that river the "Dao" and all we can do is be like a leaf that floats with the current.


baroness radon said...

I loved The Reader, but haven't read the book, although I know something about it and this issue.

I am thinking of a contrast with China, from which I just returned, where nobody really talks about the past...that is, the recent past. Young people are very devoted to "New China" since Liberation..but you don't ask, what did you do during the Cultural revolution. "I made my teacher jump out a window...?" True, there is lots of "scar" literature, but I have yet to see honest stories by people who perpetrated really atrocious things taking any kind of responsibility. Maybe in time there will be such honesty, but now people just sweep it under Deng Xiao Ping's glorious rug. Mao was 70 percent right, 30 percent wrong. As for us, China's 5000 years of civilization just marches on. And everyone is an entrepreneur.

Incidentally, Beijing air quality was pretty awful, traffic was incredible (all new cars) and new buildling and development happening overnight. There are a number of green sort of initiatives, but the sheer volume of everything in Chinese cities is overwhelming.

The mountains were nice, but Wudang is becoming something of a tourist destination, and not just for spiritual seekers. Chinese tourists were taking pictures of US doing qigong practice, putting themselves into our group, posing uninvited next to the master, flashing V signs.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

My guess is that the sort of processes that make someone into a Hannah Schmidt or Red Guard would mitigate against any sort of telling reassessment of one's role in past horrific events. Articulate, thoughtful people prone to introspection probably don't end up as concentration camp guards. (This doesn't mean that they are monsters, only that they aren't the same sort of people who write blogs, novels or plays.)

I think that this might be part of the problem many people have understanding and feeling empathy for them. The very people most concerned about understanding this sort of thing are the ones with the least in common with the perpetrators.

There is a line in both the book and the novel that plays with this idea. The narrator says he'd like to give Hannah's savings to a Jewish organization that helps end illiteracy. The survivor says that this would be all right, but adds---gratuitously---that illiteracy is not a Jewish problem.

I think the comparison with Red Guards is absolutely "bang on". I cannot think of another group that was more the victims of their cultural milieu. In a sense, they may be the worst victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Jim714 said...

Coming at this question (excellent post, by the way) from the other direction, I spent several years reading about people who did not succumb to the oppressive ideologies of the W.W. II era. I wanted to see if I could find some common thread in their background, philosophy, sense of life, that would provide a clue as to why some individuals were able to see through the mass delusions. I looked at both Germany and Japan. In Germany perhaps Paul Tillich, along with Karl Jaspers, is the most famous intellectual who did not succumb to the collective seductions. In Japan the most famous example I know of is Makaguchi (one of the founders of SGI; at that time a very small organization) who died in prison rather than sign on to the Japanese Imperial Project. I was able to uncover less well-known examples.

But I could come to no conclusion. Some where religious, some not. Some highly educated, others with only a minimal education. Some had strong family ties, others were not particularly connected to a family structure. It remains a puzzle to me.

Best wishes,


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


A good point to make. Again, I suspect that people who "do the right thing" just as often do it for reasons beyond their control just as often as people "do the wrong thing". One thing I have noticed is that many folks who do good things in the face of great risk often say "What else could I have done?" That is to say, something in their nature or background manifested itself as a compulsion rather than a choice.

Bao Pu said...

Interesting and insightful Bill. Thanks. My girlfriend and I agree that if we were brought up in an al qaeda family, it is likely we would think and act as they do. I believe that this perspective helps with forgiveness and a lack of hatred, but I also believe that it doesn't entail defending acts of violence or hatred, that is, I still condemn murder and torture.

Paul Sunstone said...

I think your post is compelling. There might also be another reason to forgive -- that is, for our own sake. It's bad enough when evil is done to us. But I think it's worse when we carry it for the rest of our lives.