The following excerpt was published in the Ottawa Citizen January 20, 2015.
The most elusive question about tyranny is this: How are ordinary people persuaded to comply passively with injustice, or to take the next step and actively turn on neighbours with whom they may have lived in peace for decades, or even centuries? A devalued, marginalized minority seems to be the key, for exposed to a continuum of propaganda, decent human beings are transformed and desensitized.
Anti-minority propaganda labours to give birth to one and only one offspring: a population that is incrementally conditioned to accept the abuse of the excluded group. Such propaganda is not subtle; frequently it includes an attempt to depict the enemy as a blood-sucking, disease-infected, reeking metamorphosis of a despised animal or insect — in other words, as subhuman. These pointed metaphors permit decent people to reject the pariah from the community; they enable persecutors and passive onlookers to accept the unacceptable on grounds that the victim does not deserve or even need their compassion.
In spite of implausible crudeness, the dehumanization of the designated other is often wildly successful. Awakening hatred in mixed societies is as easy as paint-by-numbers; in fact, hate speech often consists of a stock script with blanks where the name of the chosen enemy may be inserted. And while the progressive continuum of group devaluation may embolden only a nucleus of active perpetrators, millions more are conditioned neither to see, react to, nor feel personally connected to the degradation of the other. These are the onlookers who claim not to have known what was taking place in their communities. The German word Mitläufer, which was used at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, catches the meaning well. It refers to people who participate — who take part in the prevailing order — either actively out of conviction, or passively because it’s simply easier in hard times to keep one’s head down.
The inability to see may also affect members of the oppressed groups themselves, although for different reasons. One suspects that the blindness that afflicted so many German Jews in the 1930s and made them reluctant to leave in spite of the indignities being visited upon them can best be understood through the prism of their perceived Germanness — their determined belief that they belonged. In German-Jewish writings, one finds hundreds of examples of this confusion on the part of people whose forebears had long ago abandoned orthodox religion for the new secular faith, the nation-state: people whose families had converted to Christianity generations before. To see the implications of what was happening around them would have required them to abandon the central identity of their lives, their Germanness, leaving nothing to fill the void.
When the Spanish Inquisition first held its victims in death’s embrace, they too had difficulty understanding. The converts were Spanish, some of them were of the nobility, many were men and women of substance. Tragically, fancifully, a handful thought their connections at court — their status, in other words — could stop the machinery of the Inquisition if they attempted a judicious assassination. The autos da fé that followed this fatal misjudgment opened their eyes, but only somewhat; for a mere decade later, when they learned of the imminent expulsion of the Jews, Isaac Abravanel and Abraham Seneor, two of the brightest men of their age, were similarly unable to register the meaning of an edict that would expel their people from their homeland of fifteen hundred years. They reminded Ferdinand and Isabella of the long centuries of Jewish service to the crown, as if that mattered anymore. A transformation had occurred, the times had changed. What they failed to see was that there was now only one criterion for belonging and that one criterion excluded them.
When the most powerful propaganda fails to dissolve moral barriers in strongly principled individuals, the latter may subject themselves to personal risk in order to help people whose faces they recognize to be as human as their own. Like the Dane who explained fifty years later why he and his parents had helped rescue thousands of Jews. “We did not look upon the Jews as ‘Jews,’” he said. “They were Danes — our fellow countrymen.” In other words, they were neither abstractions, nor stereotypes, but human beings. In Spain, in spite of an anti-Semitic propaganda war enveloping the whole of the fifteenth century, public sympathy for the expelled Jews ran so high that a judge in Cáceres was forced to issue an order appropriating the property of Christians who were assisting them. To help during the Nazi era was infinitely more dangerous, but in 1492 and in 1943 those who took the risk were the same kind of individual: conscientious, nonconforming, and angry at injustice.