Where lies the pews, at the front is the pulpit. Where there are cottages, at the top of the hill sits a mansion. Where there is a wound, there is the object that opened it. And where there is a system, a state of being, then there is a power at work. That power may be for good or worse, and how we see those in power as being either one of those two is simply a matter of subjectivity; and the question that should be asked is not whether the choices made were right or wrong, but rather if, as a people, as individuals, are we by any means responsible for the actions that are taken by those more capable than us? If by allowing that person to become powerful, by not looking in between the blurred lines of power, and just blindly giving in and promoting what is there for our own benefit- are we responsible for the tragedies that happen?
This question has been asked far and in between throughout history, at least one in a more direct way. One could say that Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience asks that very question, but like with most cases of old governmental philosophy that stems from those times- it is merely about taking action when one's rights are trampled upon, but what of when they are trampled on because of the lack of action that the other side takes? In 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected as the Chancellor in the Weimar Republic of Germany by more than half of the population. Hitler, of course, was a man whose mouth was the equivalent of the atom bomb, weaving his words in a way that hypnotized the public into believing that he could restore Germany’s former greatness from the times of Otto Von Bismark. For this, the German population of the time cannot be fully blamed, but would not the common sense, the knowledge that a man who seeks to eradicate one section of the population of a country, a continent even, would also seek to hurt the vast majority of it too. That whenever the idea of a “perfect” race comes into place, not only would those who are considered to be deficient pay the price, but all who do not fit that description would pay it as well. If there could only be one superior kind, hailed as the ultimate specimen and that is specific among a certain race, such as with the Arians, then all who fall below that would suffer in one way or another, at one point or another. When a population subscribes to something indefinitely, seeing it as a simple answer to what is more than a complicated issue like the Treaty of Versaille and Europe’s sovereign relations; simply handing over a majority of its population for their own benefit- then it truly is their fault for the events that followed after 1933. Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale, points out in his book, On Tyranny, that when a country or people agree to anticipatory obedience, turning on each other even before the powers that be come into play, destroying parts of their current society to benefit the new one- then the people truly are at fault. As Snyder discusses in the case with the Nazi’s pre and post annexation of Austria in 1938, he points out that:
“After the Austrian chancellor conceded, it was the Austrian’s anticipatory obedience that decided the fate of Austrian Jews. Local Austrian Nazis captured Jews and forced them to scrub the streets to remove symbols of Austrian independence. Crucially, people who were not Nazis looked on with interest and amusement. Nazis who had kept a list of Jewish property stole what they could. Crucially, others who were not Nazis joined in on the theft… The anticipatory obedience of Austrians… taught the high Nazi leadership what was possible.”
When one truly thinks of it- anticipatory obedience is just another form of the lack of common sense and decency that caused so many, if not the majority, of issues that were seen across the world in the 20th century. To add onto this, those stemming from Germanic lineage are not the only susceptible to such a thing. In On Tyranny, Snyder points to Stanley Milgram’s obedience experience, but I think there may be one that better shows how we, as humans, head towards anticipatory obedience as a means to our own self-benefit. This is, of course, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
In 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to look at one of the core influences and drives that are concurrent through each of our existences- the need, or abuse, of power. Within the experiment, its designer, Phillip Zimbardo, made it so that, when placing students into the specific situation of a prison format, this would then trigger an abuse of power by the student splaying as guards and give into the human instinct for evil. Although Zimbardo does note that just because this evil acts as an instinct to protect power this does not, by no means, qualify the actions that are taken. Zimbardo, in his report, states:
“It is a truism in psychology that personality and situations interact to generate behavior, as do cultural and societal influences. However, I have tried to show in my research… that situations exert more power over human actions than has been generally acknowledged by most psychologists nor recognized by the general public. However… Acknowledging the power of situational forces does not excuse the behaviors channeled by their operation. In many circles, any attempts at situational analyses are dismissed as nothing more than “excusiology.” People are assumed to always be in control of their behavior, to act from free will, and thus be personally responsible for any and all of their actions. Unless insane, individuals who do wrong should know that they are doing wrong and be punished accordingly. The situation is taken to be nothing more than a set of minimally relevant extrinsic circumstances.”
Putting Zimbardo’s study into the terms of 1938 Austria: once the Nazi’s gained control of their neighbors' government, all those who were not Jewish or within the “degenerate” group were then able to take advantage of this new found power. As Snyder noted, those who were not even Nazi’s joined in on all of the heinous acts being committed for the sheer benefit of their own households and subgroup of society- simply because the situation at hand allowed for it. Was it their fault that the Nazi’s ended up taking Austria for themselves? No. But was it their fault that by using this new found system and not, instead, standing up to it or silently undignifying it that Germany thus thought, and knew, that other countries would react in a similar manner? Absolutely.
One cannot kill, rob, or demean another person without knowing that they are giving into evil. It is common sense that each of these actions, and more, are nothing short of not just criminal, but cruel and deceitful. Although when one is given the choice of either standing tall for the benefit of the world or falling into the depths of our own immoral potentialities for personal gain, we have seen that they will give into the second rather than the first. Even so, most will give into neither and would rather do nothing, which I would say equals the second.
And nobody should think that the atrocities that occurred then have been eradicated today. As we speak, Muslims are being held in camps in China and we use not the common sense to intervene for the better of this world, but we use that “common sense” to not do anything at all out of the fear there would be conflict and thus tragedy. But what many fail to realize is that tragedy has already occurred- and it is by our lack of caring to get our government to do something that it has so. Same goes for Rwanda in 1994, or in 1942 with the Japanese Internment Camps, or with countless other atrocities taken against the human rights of a certain group of people throughout these past decades.
Although it is not only within the context of genocide and mass incarceration that this applies, for we, as a people, have been feeding into the evils of the world since the dawn of time.
In fact, this can even be seen today with the countless incidents of police brutality and the white systemic power that exists in America. Just like with the Nazis in Germany or the Bolsheviks in Russian- when there is a system that gives one group power and control over another, it will then be used and taken advantage of, even when one knows that, deep down, it is sinful to do so. But it is because of the system that the white woman can threaten a black man with saying they were raped or that they shall call the police- because they know that for the color of their skin, they are above and therefore in control of the very existence of that man's life. By knowing that they have this power, they can get by in most situations without the worry of any of their consequences coming to fruition. One example of such a situation is plainly put by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me, as he depicts the events that occur after a white woman pushes his kid-son, to whom the book is addressing. He promptly states:
“A white woman pushed you and said, ‘Come on!’ Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank… I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast… And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd.… He said, ‘I could have you arrested!’... I came home shook. It was a mix of shame for having gone back to the law of the streets, mixed with rage--’I could have you arrested!’ Which is to say: ‘I could take your body.’”
Of course, the situation lended itself to the reactions of the white people towards a justifiably hostile black man. Where the flaw occurs is in the thinking of the people, the lack of notability that just because the white woman is being yelled at does not mean she did nothing wrong. None of the white people who came to support their fellow woman thought that maybe she was the one at fault, and the young black boy whom she pushed was merely a victim of not just her force of her hand upon his body, but the witness of the threat against his father's life. And it is the fault of we, the people, and past generations to assume that the cop is within the right, and to only do so based on the color of his skin and the placement of “authority” that he holds. No human is perfect and will react or proceed accordingly, especially within law enforcement or overseas combat, and it is often the lack of this blatant reality that leads a good portion of this country to be at fault for not wanting to take precautions to prevent the loss of more black lives, more human lives.
We are a people in a state, just as the Austrians were, and a people in a world, just as all of Europe was during the Rwandan Genocide. The people in power will act as they believe, and while they can be held accountable for that, it is difficult to say that they made the wrong decision for they only are making the right decisions for all those that they serve. Although as of recent, a lot of wrong decisions have been made and it happens often, and even more so when someone is unqualified is at work. But where we lie at fault is not in their actions, but in our allowing them to commit said actions. The Germans were at fault for not using common sense and electing an anti-semitic egomaniac as their Chancellor, and the same went for the Austrians as they did not help their Jewish brethren but instead turned against them. It was because of selfishness and the fantasies that laid in their minds that they too should be blamed, and America is no different in both its past and present treatment of other races that are not of the white skin.
The only way to resolve is to acknowledge and educate, to see and seek, and, before all else, to just think. To not believe what is said until you know what it means in truth, and to work on how you can read the layout of this world. Tragedies occur mostly because out of our control, but the biggest ones, the ones that cause whole regions like the Middle East to become nothing but a tumultuous warzone, is because many of us put people in power who are not in it for the people. It is through looking beyond the curtain that atrocities may be prevented, that another man like Hitler would never again rise to power, or another 16,000 Americans would die from a virus.
We the people have been at fault and will continue to be, but that is not to say that we cannot prevent more awful things in our future, that we are helpless. As long as we have the right to choose and the eyes to see, we shall always have the opportunity to avert future disasters against all healths of the states of this world. So never abuse or forget this power that we have- because it is our only chance at the insurance of a better world for the days and years to come.
To read more articles from B. F. Harvey click here.