Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Lessons

About 16 years ago, as part of the work I was doing for my Ph.D. thesis, I visited the Fortunoff video archive for Holocaust testimonies at Yale university. I was interested in the phenomenon of survivor shame.

After 10 days of watching video recordings of interviews with Holocaust survivors a number of things stuck with me and remain prominent in my thoughts to this day. I'll list two here.

1. Many of those interviewed who were survivors had lived silent for three decades or more. Many of them were speaking now either because they had been persuaded it was important for them to do so or because they had been moved to break their silence because of the emergence of the denialist movement. In short, testifying to what happened then was a deeply distressing experience and often had psychological consequences. They did it because they felt it was important that the truth be known and not doubted.

2. I watched a number of interviews with those who had managed to escape Germany, Poland and so on in the 1930s, and made it to the US. What came up several times was the following: they would receive letters from friends and family back in Europe which would make light of the changed circumstances, which would play down the horrors of forced removal to ghettos and so forth. While there are a number of possible explanations for this, what seemed to emerge from the interviews was that those writing the letters simply couldn't comprehend the magnitude of what was happening or that the psychological burden of comprehension was simply too much, particularly if you had a family to hold together. So people downplayed the hardship and the horror as a way of seeking to convince themselves things would be alright, that it wasn't as bad as it seemed (and would become).

From this I take these lessons (among others): 

re 1. Testifying to crimes, calling out and documenting injustice, is not whining, it's not a personality flaw, it's not something people want to do or do because they think it makes them look good. It is something that is very difficult to do, that takes courage. People lived for 30 years and more without telling a soul what they'd witnessed and experienced. There is little pride in identifying oneself as a victim, particularly if the crimes perpetrated against you involved all-out attack on your dignity. 
The right wing attacks on people calling out injustice which depict those people as whiners, and as weak, are the reverse of the truth. Fascists are the weak who bully in an attempt to hide from themselves their own weakness. Those who stand for justice when it would be easier to stay silent are the drivers of all that is good in humanity.

re 2.when catastrophic political change is happening history shows us that it invariably creeps up on us, it happens not with a dramatic bang, not with the sudden horrific entrance of obviously evil people, but incrementally, so we just don't see it for what it is until later, much later. We don't see it for what it is for numerous psychological reasons and because bad people rarely do bad things in the name of badness. Be aware of this tendency and try to find the courage to see things for what they are, don't seek to explain away the alt-right as jesters because that helps frame them as less of a threat. It is important to see these people for who they are.

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