Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Dark Side of Being Human

"Cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us."  ~Robinson Jeffers

I finally visited the National Holocaust Museum recently.  I've been wanting to do this since it opened its doors in Washington D.C.  Although I am neither Jewish, nor German, nor related to anyone, that I know of, who perished during World War II, I still felt a human obligation to bear witness to the event.  

I was really young when I first discovered accounts of the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps.   The public library was one of my favorite haunts and I soon discovered the Reference Room, the back room that housed large volumes that weren't on loan but could be read on the premises.  I scoured the shelves, fascinated.  I don't know how I found the book, whether it was a history book or what, but I remember sitting on the floor between the tall bookshelves, alone in the Reference Room, discovering what one group of people did to others in hatred.  We didn't learn about this in school in those days.  It was the early to mid 1970's and I was only vaguely aware that Nazi soldiers and swastikas were somehow "bad"  but I was not aware at the time of the deep-seated  and widespread hatred of Jewish people.

I should have.  My neighborhood was almost entirely white Protestant.  Jews, Catholics, and Blacks were considered "other."  But it never occurred to me to be anything besides curious about those "others."  There was the Catholic family that lived behind us that had sixteen children.  Why so many? Because they were Catholic.  That made no sense to the mind of a child that knew nothing of sex or procreation or why being Catholic made one prone to having many children. Besides, the neighbors across the street were also Catholic and they only had two kids. We weren't Catholic and there were four kids in my family. The Catholic kids all went to private Catholic school and wore plaid skirts and white shirts.  I wondered what it was like to attend that school.  I imagined it was like going to Sunday School every day.  There was one Jewish boy in my class.  I asked him what it was like to be Jewish.  He said, "I don't know, what's it like to not be Jewish?"  I then asked him why Jewish people didn't believe in Jesus.  He replied, "We believe in Jesus, we just don't believe he was the Son of  God."  Which got me thinking about what that meant.  Did I even believe that?  And why should anyone be "different" just because they do or don't believe this?  I didn't have any Black friends until Jr. High and into High School.  I just didn't.  It wasn't a choice as the option wasn't available to me.  There just wasn't much diversity in the neighborhood and I wasn't allowed to venture too far beyond its borders.  My elders were racist.  My mother tried not to be.  I viewed those unlike myself as curiosities, different, interesting, and while it's not anything even remotely like hatred, it is a kind of prejudice, too.  It's called Othering. 

I prefer the Anthropological definition of Othering.  It is a simplistic recognition of normal human diversity, combined with ethnocentric thinking that can lead to a tendency to depict ‘others’ as somehow, categorically, topologically, intrinsically, different.  Unfortunately, this leads to placing a value judgment on those differences and it seems to be human nature to believe that one's own group's ways are superior to those who do things differently and therefore must be lesser.  We are "normal" while they are "abnormal," and even "sub-human."  We are right and they are wrong.  It is entirely possible, and preferable, to observe the differences and not place value on those differences but instead employ cultural relativism.  Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture.  Unfortunately, this anthropological and philosophical approach was not developed until the 1920's and was not known outside of academic circles until after 1942.  Ironically, this approach had its origin in the German Enlightenment through the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and his student Johann Gottfried Herder.  In the late 1700's  Herder argued that Jews in Germany should enjoy the full rights and obligations of Germans, and that the non-Jews of the world owed a debt to Jews for centuries of abuse, and that this debt could be discharged only by actively assisting those Jews who wished to do so to regain political sovereignty in their ancient homeland of Israel Herder refused to adhere to a rigid racial theory, writing that "notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth". He also announced that "national glory is a deceiving seducer. When it reaches a certain height, it clasps the head with an iron band. The enclosed sees nothing in the mist but his own picture; he is susceptible to no foreign impressions."

Truth is, the average person in the Western world  was not as culturally sensitive and aware in the middle of the last century as we are today.  Well, most of us, anyway.  We still Other others.  We still talk about other nations and peoples as if they were lesser because they do things differently.  But while we may cringe at the idea that the wife of the commanding officer at Buchenwald collected tattooed human skin, our own military sent home the skulls of "japs" from the war in Japan as souvenirs.  We rounded up American citizens and interred them in camps, too.  In the name of "National Security."  We destroyed businesses, families, homes, lives.  I'm not excusing the Nazis by any means.  Interring people in camps and systematically exterminating them are miles apart.  Heaping up piles of corpses, mass graves, human bonfires...we all know how wrong it is, no matter if one has heard of cultural relativism or not. But it starts with Othering and ends in human destruction.

I've heard the Holocaust deniers.  I know people are quibbling over the number of people that were exterminated.  The official, commonly accepted, count:
  • Jews- 5.9 million (close to two thirds of Europe's Jewish population)
  • Soviet POW's- 3.3 million
  • Non-Jewish Poles- 1.8-2 million
  • Romanis ('gypsies')- 220,000- 270,000 (but even the higher figure may be too low)
  • Disabled- 200,000 - 250,000
  • Homosexuals- 5,000 - 15,000
  • Jehovah's Witnesses- 2,500 - 5,000
Some will say no, it wasn't six million Jews, only about a million.  Well, a million is unfathomable, too, so shut up.  The gas chambers didn't exist, they say.  The piles of corpses all died from typhus and starvation. Nevermind that the Nazis own records and diaries condemn them.  What the deniers want is a smoking gun, a signed, sealed and notarized direct order from Hitler himself that outlines the construction of gas chambers and disposal of millions of bodies.  As meticulous as the Nazis were, atrocities are still atrocities and whether or not they were aware of cultural relativism, everyone knew what they were doing was morally repugnant.  They didn't broadcast their Final Solution.

Anyone deemed "different" was not only shunned but killed. Differences were color-coded.  Concentration camp prisoners were made to wear badges on their clothes that designated their particular difference, their reason for extermination.  Some of these inverted colored triangles have since been re-appropriated into symbols of pride and as a protest against discrimination.  Depending on the triangle color it designated your particular "otherness."  Pink was for (male) Homosexuals; Red stood for Political Prisoner (which all Jews were considered); Green was for Criminals, though that category grew quite large since it was, after all, a crime in Nazi Germany to speak ill of Hitler or the Nazi Party or to resist the government in any way, to consort with Jews, even to buy goods or services from them, to assist a Jew in any way, etc.; Blue was for Emigrants, those German citizens who fled Nazi Germany and were captured;  Purple was for Bible Believers, those whose faith prevented them from taking oaths and swearing allegiance to the government; Black was for "asocial" persons, lesbians, or persons considered "work-shy" (Romanis were classified as such at first); Brown was for Romanis, the gypsies.  Jews had the red inverted triangle with a yellow triangle overlaying it to form the Star of David.  Some had designations of letters inside the triangle, such as P for Poles.  The identification seemed important to the Nazis, though I'm not sure why, as they had designated all but themselves as unworthy.  Insanity isn't always chaotic.  Sometimes its very neat and organized.

My first exposure to the atrocities when I was a child set up a sort of resistance in my own mind to learning anything substantial about World War II.  I really didn't want to know, I had seen enough.  Although I couldn't comprehend it, and I still can't and don't know anyone who can, I also couldn't bring myself to read any political justification or "reasons" for war, for genocide, for destruction, for hatred so deep it resulted in That.  Unspeakable.  Horror.  I grew up with political suspicion.  I was just a baby when the Kennedys were assassinated, a child when Nixon  resigned over his Watergate transgressions.  I grew up not trusting government systems and not really believing what was broadcast on the news.  When the World Trade Center buildings were destroyed, that very morning I remember thinking I wouldn't be surprised if our own government officials were behind it.  I'm just very cynical, I suppose.  And cautious.  And did I mention suspicious?  I am suspicious of the motives behind those who vilify Muslims in our recent political climate.  I hear conservative politicians making shit up about Muslim communities out of paranoia and quite frankly, I can't help but hear the sound of marching jackboots when they do.  I've watched as folks jump on the bandwagon to protest an Islamic Community Center taking up residence a few blocks away from the former site of the WTC, calling it a "Ground Zero Mosque" as if it was to be erected right on the rubble.  I sense the groundswell of bigotry and I cringe inside.  It's frightening to me that Middle Eastern shops and places of worship were vandalized in the wake of 9/11.  I am not Muslim, but I remember the pictures of  KristallnachtThis is what is also disturbing behind the new immigration policies and laws in Arizona.  Whenever a particular group of people, distinguished by race or creed or gender or lifestyle, is singled out for "special treatment,"  I get very, very nervous.  Particularly so when people in government or stations of influence are trying to gain support for such treatment such as Newt Gingrich's recent comments about Muslim Sharia Law posing a threat to the US Constitution. And then there's Rich Iott, the Republican nominee for Congress from Ohio's 9th District, who for years donned a German Waffen SS uniform and participated in Nazi re-enactments.   Sometimes the statements from those who align themselves with the new US Tea Party movement sound a bit too much like the "patriotic" call to arms from Germany's past:  "Germany for the Germans!"  And while I know it is poor internet form to throw up the Nazi card in discussions because it is done far too often and is usually a lame straw-man argument, I am doing so here because, well, it just seems too similar in its roots.  While I haven't heard anyone yet dare to speak of annihilating any group, there are serious proposals to limit their participation in American life, to curtail their civil rights, based only on their nationality or religious affiliation.  Mexican-Americans already must be prepared to show forth their papers at any time in states that border Mexico and even then there have been incidents where their genuine papers have been deemed forgeries and deported illegally.  These things have me concerned.

But this is not a political post, not really, and it's not even so much about tarot, per se.  I am far too out of the political loop to coherently debate these current issues.  Just like those who jump on the "No Ground Zero Mosque!" bandwagon with little information to go on, I may also be jumping to conclusions.  We're all at the mercy of which news feeds we read.  The more I learn about history, from ancient times to modern times, I am struck by the observation that humans have not really changed much and I think this is the reason such things concern me.  I think people often live under a false notion that because we have already experienced such an atrocity as the Holocaust, we have learned our lesson and it will never happen again, that we have evolved since then.  Heck, the term "cultural relativism"  wasn't even known outside of universities until after WWII.  Regardless, religious teachings for thousands of years have promoted anti-xenophobic attitudes.  Othering is something human societies seem prone to.  The constancy of human nature over time and across cultures is something that allows the tarot to remain relevant.  Many of the symbolic images, colors, shapes and figures pre-date tarot and have been part of human culture for ages.  That we can take these cards, which were developed into the form we know them today only several hundred years ago but which contain iconography and archetypal representations from the distant past, and interpret meaning which is totally modern and applicable to one's life today, is proof that humans are really much the same as we always have been.  The practice of divination, too, is also ancient and people have always used whatever is at their disposal to predict, interpret and manifest intuitive meaning and significance to their relatively short lives.  What really makes us so different today that we could not repeat the grand-scale horrors of human history?  Clearly General Eisenhower understood this propensity of humans when he wrote to Marshall at the liberation of the camps:
"The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they [there] were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit [to Gotha] deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”
Many understand this tendency, especially to downplay atrocities after the fact because we don't want to believe we belong to a species capable of such cruelty.  Denial is never a healthy response because it dooms us to ignorance.  There is plenty enough blame to go around, in that no country or group involved in a war can be entirely absolved of guilt.  U.S. concentration camps with German prisoners were atrocious as well.  The civilian casualties from Allied bombings and raids were legion.  "Collateral damage" from any war is entirely repugnant. My studies into history and human culture have broadened my view to a much more encompassing perspective.  I own what we have done.  I hate it, but I own it.  I am not unlike the "others" who are so cruel.  I am one of them.  They are us.

This isn't an exercise in self-hatred.  This isn't a "we suck" party at all.  It's a recognition that the human capacity for evil, for cruelty, for bigotry and hatred lies within us all.  It is understanding that "they" are no worse than "we" if they only practice their biases differently.  Certainly, I can be intolerant of intolerance, bigoted against bigotry, but the irony is suffocating.  It's like hitting your child to teach them not to hit.  Last night while watching the movie, Invictus, the story of how Nelson Mandela used the South African rugby team to encourage the fractured new nation to unite,  I was struck by the way Mandela recognized the very human temptation to follow the old cycles and repeat each others mistakes.  Mandela recognized the team's importance to the white minority, a minority that was still very powerful, and rather than erase the team and create an entirely new one, he encourages the existing almost all-white team to victory in the World Cup.  That victory was a watershed moment in South African history, a reconciliation in a violently race-torn country.  It's perfectly understandable how someone imprisoned for 30 years might want to come out and turn around and eradicate the white minority from the country, yet not so understandable when that same person seeks to create harmony and reconciliation.  We marvel at the conviction of such a man because it appears to go against human nature.  And yet we claim to not understand our cruel side.  I think we understand it better than we admit.

8 comments:

melissatarot said...

This is a really well thought-out post. Thank you for sharing it with me. As a brown "P" triangle descendent, it was jarring to see the list of Others.

Best, Melissa

Ginny said...

Hi Melissa. Thanks for your comment. It actually was the chart of triangles that I saw at the museum and posted here that prompted this post. The list of Others was a lot more encompassing than I realized, too. :( Utterly sobering. Anyone could be a triangle. Anyone.

viemagique.net said...

Exptraordinary post, Ginny. I am a descendant of at least three triangles... Reminders of the sheer volume and relentless classification of Othering were sobering, but we need them - even as we write, genocide is ongoing in Sudan, and always on the brink in one or other place on the planet - as well as the 'genocide soft' that are the denial of civil rights, police harassment and targetted bullying.

Have you read Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem? A short but excellent book, in which Arendt first coined the phrase 'the banality of evil', to remind us that evil doesn't wear horns and doesn't always make a lot of noise - it creeps up and its servants are those who do not stand up to it when it advances, but serve it through doing their jobs without protest. That is - as you say - potentially any one of us. We must be vigilant. And yes, tarot is a reminder that what brings us together can trump what pulls us apart.

Sophie Odysseia

Katrina Wynne said...

Dear Ginny,

Thank you for your thoughtful post.

As Frank Zappa sings..."We are the other people. You're the other people too. Find a way to get to you." (lyrics from Mother People)

From my studies of the Tarot, the topic of otherness, or "Othering," is at the heart of the profound spiritual lesson of Tarot, moving us beyond duality into unity consciousness.

Thank you for bringing us closer in our awareness of this possibility.

In Light & Love,
Katrina Wynne

David Alan Richards said...

I think a lot about cruelty having been through a lot of it and given my share of it in my less enlightened times of life. As a matter of fact, as a horror writer, I've gotten stories published, basically reflecting on it.

I am horrified and amazed by the holocaust--that hate could go so far. And it scares me what the human race is capable of.

My mother who was Jewish, thought the holocaust could only have been started by the Germans because they were German, but this was part of her own prejudices and perhaps a way of distancing herself from evil.

Human beings are a strange mixture of good and confusion. I know I am. One hopes to do the right thing, but even if one lives a moral life in one's community, there's indirect but real hurt.

Pick up a piece of fruit in the supermarket and you're supporting slave labor of immigrants. Eat an egg for breakfast and your helping torture animals...

There's really no tidy way to wrap this comment up. I was just thinking...

André Frazatto said...

I lost a long time thinking how to write this comment without being an ass....and then I gave up entirely! hehe

Instead, I would be very satisfied if you could take some of your time to watch this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EewGMBOB4Gg

It's from a international movement I'm part and it handles the most common human problems (world level) and possible solutions.

You seem to appreciate my participation here on the comments section, so give it a try...if you don't like you can always insult me! :P

Hobby Bard said...

Very interesting post, Ginny.

While WWII grabbed you as a child, the Native American genocide from our founding fathers was what opened my eyes.

I've just moved. Here in Norway everyone seems very interested in Hitler. Books all over the library about WWII. When people found out that I lived in Germany for 9 years the topic of war comes up. I remind them of this:

Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995 - 200,000 Deaths
Rwanda: 1994 - 800,000 Deaths
Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979 - 2,000,000 Deaths
Rape of Nanking: 1937-1938 - 300,000 Deaths
Stalin's Forced Famine: 1932-1933 - 7,000,000 Deaths
Armenians in Turkey: 1915-1918 - 1,500,000 Deaths

It's still happening again and again.

usevideo said...

That was a bit of a read... deeply knowledgeable, Why aren't tarot readings done in a live video tarot reading format

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