“If I were there [meaning in Germany, during WWII], I would likely be one of those who would go along without asking questions until it was too late.” So began an extraordinary conversation with a woman I recently met when I was in England. I had never imagined hearing anyone say this, so I had nothing but respect for her. “How can you know this about yourself?” I continued. Her answer amazed me even further. She told me she knew herself not to ask many questions, to go along with things. She could see how one little step could lead to another, and by the time you had an inkling of what was actually going on, you would be too entangled to back up. Your family and kids would depend on your income, or your standing in the community would be too precarious anyway. I am wondering if she is ultimately right about herself. After all, she is reflecting on these issues, and with such self-honesty. Wouldn’t that kind of courage give her a moral compass?
The Challenge of Taking a Moral Stand
In an earlier post about these kinds of moral dilemmas I described an extraordinary film I watched when I was in Israel that looks exactly at the challenge of standing up when the cost is high. While still in Israel, I saw “Saviors in the Night,” another astonishing film that directly bears on this question. The movie depicts a true story of a family of farmers in Westphalia that hid mother and daughter during the war under immensely difficult conditions and at high risk to themselves in a small community replete with Nazis. At first not even the entire family knew that their “guests” were Jews, and the teenage daughter was completely identified with the Nazis. One of the most extraordinary scenes in the movie shows the father taking the teenage daughter, after she discovered the truth, to hear some stories that would finally open her heart to the humanity of the Jews. I have rarely seen on screen someone’s heart cracking open to truth, and I sense we can all learn from the choices the father made for how to reach people who are elsewhere.
What this film made abundantly clear to me is just how much courage would be needed in order to make a choice to stand up to the force field of Nazism, to the government, to the individuals around, and to the fear of death itself. It clarified for me why so few had done so. There are only a few hundred documented cases of people saving Jews in Germany. Between this movie and the conversation with the woman in England, I have ever more appreciation for the immense complexity and daunting challenges.
Obedience, Fear, and Empathy
Walking out of the movie I heard someone comment to another about these numbers in a surprised tone in which I heard an edge of moral superiority. I was saddened, because I want us to grow in humility, to learn that we have no way of knowing, any of us, about ourselves. This morning, as I was sitting to write about this, I poked around the web for more information about this movie. I came across a comment from someone that captures this intensity beautifully for me: “If your government was exterminating a despised minority, do you think you would refuse and resist? Or do you think you would go along?”
We know most people didn’t resist. That would mean most of us wouldn’t, either. What makes that possible? What force is powerful enough to be a block to empathy, to what I believe is the natural response to others’ suffering? Milgram’s famous experiments from the 1950s shed some chilling light on the role of discipline and obedience. In his experiments the overwhelming majority of participants were willingly subjecting others to electric shocks which, though in reality imaginary, appeared to them to inflict severe pain on the victims, and which they nonetheless continued to administer.
I had the enormous good fortune of actually watching Milgram’s film, an experience which completely changed my perspective and understanding of what is significant about his experiments. What I found most striking was the degree of personal anguish so many of the participants experienced as they were administering the electric shocks, clearly indicating that their basic reaction was one of aversion to harming another. While people can be brought to ignore, overcome, suppress, or numb out their natural empathic responses, Milgram’s experiments show the enormous cost to human beings of overcoming natural empathy. It’s obedience or fear, not lack of care, that allows these acts.
Who, Then, Stands Up?
Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted a massive study of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust (The Altruistic Personality). Based on many hundreds of interviews, a couple of telling things stand out. One is that rescuers were asked to do so. This is also true in the movie. The farmer would not likely have offered without being asked. When we are asked, we are confronted with the moral dilemma in a way that makes it harder to ignore and downplay. Let’s not give in to the notion that others are too busy or wouldn’t care enough. Let’s give them the respect of asking, always, for what’s truly needed.
The second distinguishing factor is that the people who rescued Jews they tended to grow up in households where punishment was not the norm. They were raised on engaging with values rather than being punished for doing the wrong thing. As a result, they had less fear and more willingness to stand up. This has implications for parenting: we can raise our children without fear, without calling them to obedience. We can honor their endless questions, encourage them to make their own choices in matters of moral principle, and accept their mistakes as part of learning.
This brings me back to the woman who was so open to the possibility that she might have gone along. I like the idea that the more we are willing to stand up and ask questions, all the time, the more likely we are to maintain our moral courage. This is something we can do on a daily basis. We can ask questions, especially in relation to authority, about everything. We can reclaim this capacity we all had as children. We can cultivate it as an inoculation against complicity, against losing our humanity one not-asked question at a time.