May 29, 2009

The Reader, or 'Secrets Not Worth Killing For'

Last night my book club discussed The Reader. Generally speaking, we all thought it was a good book and were more or less in agreement that as far as shameful secrets go, not being able to read is about on a par with not being naturally blond - in other words, not a compelling reason to become a concentration camp guard and also not a reason that most other people, or at least non-Californians, can relate to.
I, of course, am from California and naturally blond.
Few of the women in my book club found Hanna sympathetic or could relate to the decisions she had made. And one has to wonder, 'Couldn't she just ask someone to teach her to read?' But aside from her strange tetchiness about her own illiteracy, I felt uncomfortable writing Hanna off as a bad person because I'm not so sure she was that unusual.
After WWII the next generation of young Germans accused their parents for the horrors they had committed and permitted. Can you imagine what a time that was for parents - standing accused by their own children, not just of the actual crimes but of allowing them to take place?
When my girls grow up they will no doubt accuse me of many things. For example, K might say, 'Mom, how could you just stand by and watch while President Bush and his cronies and your entire generation destroyed the environment?' To which I will protest, 'But darling, I didn't just stand by, I blogged about it and voted for President Obama. I even sent money to the Sierra Club and took a Cap It picture to help the Environmental Defense Fund lobby for better legislation!'
At which point she'll probably don her gas mask in disgust and flounce out of the room.
But hopefully she will not accuse me of attempted genocide.
It's easy to judge people for failing to take action so let's talk about human nature for a moment, which is endlessly weak and fascinating. Don't worry, I attended a liberal arts college and know all about human nature. I even read Plato's Republic as a Freshman so you're in good hands.
We (people) have several assessment mechanisms that help us navigate the world without dissolving into terrified weeping blobs of jelly that are of no use to anyone, not to mention no fun to be around. These mechanisms aren't bad but they do tend to block action where it's needed.
Here is how most people assess a situation in order to decide whether or not to act:
1. Will this impact us (me/friend) or them (you/stranger)?
2. Will it happen sooner or later?
3. Are the facts disputed or undisputed?
4. Is it easy or difficult to solve?
5. Will I (we) benefit or will someone else (they) benefit?
6. Will I act alone or will other people help?
...and, perhaps not as important as the others but has been known to tip the balance:
7. Will there be food?
These 7 little questions are, for the most part, what prevent the human race from responding to problems before they become problems. For example, most people don't bother to save energy or reduce their carbon footprint because they aren't sure, or they have bigger problems, or it feels too overwhelming to take action. Plus there doesn't seem to be much point unless everyone pitches in because the freeloaders will just be laughing at you from their air conditioned SUVs while you waste time growing a scraggy beard and gathering rain water in an aluminum container.
What it comes down to is basically just mental laziness but it's also a personal survival mechanism that ironically, will probably get us all killed.
But that's not the end of the story because we also ask ourselves: Who's in charge?
Responding to someone who seems to be in charge is the MOTHER of all behavioral triggers because we crave approval and belonging.
In The Reader 300 Jewish women burned to death in a church. Hanna didn't start the fire but she was responsible for guarding the women and she didn't let them out, although she could hear them screaming. There was some ambiguity about whether a key was available but the main reason seems to be that she was trying to do a good job.
So, the evil of Hanna is not that she actively wanted to hurt people, which is how we generally imagine evil. Her crime was that she was unwilling to break rank in order to help them.
What would you have done? asks Hanna at one point during the trial. Before you answer that, please note that there have been ample experiments conducted proving that the most average, friendly people are willing to inflict unbearable agony on others if someone plausible in a white lab coat sternly tells them to do so.
Side note for people with ADD that don't mind constant interruptions: In a book called Good Omens by Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett there is a disquieting reference to 'low-grade evil.' The idea is that evil isn't some grandiose thing, it's an accumulation of petty irritations combined with failure to take moral action. It's a fairly clever, funny book if you're looking for something a bit different.
Anyway, you'll be happy to hear that in my intensely scientific study of human nature I have concluded that most of us don't have an inner Hitler. He was something especially vile that doesn't show up that often in human history, thank goodness.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that most of us probably have an inner Hanna.
Althoguh personally, I'd rather have an inner Kate Winslet.
Or at least her hair.


  1. I haven't read the book / seen the movie, but I get what you're talking about. I agree that most of us have an inner Hanna. It's relatively easy not to do harm directly, but it's even easier to let bad things happen, simply because we fail to take action.

  2. Great great post! Our failure to take moral action will, ultimately I fear, be our downfall...

  3. Well now I have to read the book. Great post.

  4. I think I might rent this movie this weekend.

    I have such mixed feelings about a lot of Nazis being tried as war criminals. Many of them were so low on the ranks and they or their entire families would have been killed if they didn't follow orders.

  5. I think mental laziness is a big problem. How to fix that?

  6. This is not true. There have been studies and books written about Germans who actually refused orders and they were not killed, damaged or harmed. They were reassigned to non evil duties. THat is what the reality was. So don't write off evil actions and inactions on the part of murderers as what was needed to protect their own lives: this is the attempted normalization that humans want to do, but it proceeds from a false premise.

  7. Fair enough. But the numbers show that the overwhelming majority did not have that level of moral courage or we would have a very different history to study. Most people did stand by while neighbors disappeared. Also I disagree that the studies are an attempt to normalize or write off actions - the results are actually quite shocking and disturbing.

  8. There was actually a book out not too long ago whose premise was exactly that- that all people would do what the Nazis did. It normalized, in a way, by saying that "there but for the grace of god", and so , I guess, everyone should know that they would do the same. the problem with that was- an awful lot of people wouldn't. Of course, I know the Milgram experiements and I now the Kitty Genoveesee. But I like to believe that I wouldn't actually do these things when not under actual threat of death. There are some really interesting aspects to anti=Semitism in Europe, including the fact that it actually exists and grows in the absence of actual Jews, that are different from other forms of xenophobia and hatred. But to go back to your original comment (and the book is on my shelf TBR- because it's a struggle for me to deal with this topic)- I agree with you!

  9. I watched the Reader on my return flight last week. I agree that illiteracy is not a really great reason for joining the SS. Regardless, your take on human nature was interesting. It's hard to know what you'll really do when push comes to shove.

  10. Your astute observation that most of us will readily take orders from men in white coats serves us all. It is absolutely true. Which makes the expression, "beware men in white coats" appropros for eternity.

    And I am totally not intending to sound trite. The group/mob mentality is a powerful, fearsome, and frightening thing.


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