On learning to live with evil

How is it possible that apparently responsible, decent people can learn to live with incredible evil being carried out all around them in their own society?

Some actual examples of this are quite familiar to us. The buying, selling, and harsh exploitation of human slaves went on largely unchallenged for many generations in the church-going societies of America’s southern States. In more recent times in christian Germany the Nazis were able to get away with the steadily increasing brutalisation of the Jews, which ultimately culminated in the Holocaust.

Milton Mayer, in his book, They Thought They Were Free, provides a searingly perceptive account of how even very concerned Germans learned to live with the creeping evil of Nazism prior to and during WW II. The following excerpts from the book are disturbing: disturbing firstly because they make it clear how easily such a horror could happen, and disturbing secondly because Mayer’s account challenges us to ask if we in our own day could be being/have been lulled, pressured, and wittingly ‘deceived’ to go down a similar slippery slope.

“... we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, ... one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

Many, many times I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men?

You see, one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty. Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows.

... in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’

It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked . . . But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

... one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you ... you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing).”

Surely it would be fair to say that today in Australia we have “accepted things (we) would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that (our) fathers could not have imagined.”

Who 40 years ago would have predicted that we would now be having 100 000 abortions done each year in our hospitals and in numerous openly-operating specialised killing centres in our cities and suburbs? Who would have guessed that we would allow young human lives (so-called ‘spare’ IVF embryos) to be deliberately destroyed for the possible benefit of others? That we would permit the use of eggs from aborted baby girls to be used to try and generate human clones that will then be used in research and destroyed? That we would give permission for scientists to mix human and animal genetic material?

Most people seem to have had “no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” But then as Mayer provocatively puts it, “Who wants to think?”

It is likely that many people have not been entirely happy with these developments but few have made much response. “Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait ...” One day when things get really bad, we tell ourselves, then there will be a mass rejection of these evils.

But, if history is any guide, that will not happen. Over time we become too comfortable with the small changes. Besides most things still seem to be quite normal, even though everything has fundamentally changed.

And even those who want to resist, like it or not, have largely been swept along inexorably with the tide. As Mayer observed, none of us likes to be seen as a trouble-maker; none of us wants to act alone; and we all feel some uncertainty about precisely what the situation we face requires. It is much simpler, and safer, to do nothing: “that (is) all that (is) required of most of us: that we do nothing.”

It should not be so hard to understand how people could learn to live with incredible evil being carried out all around them in their own society, for surely it has happened to us.

Is everything lost then? Who can say? But for those who believe that they do recognise the greatness of the evil that our society is permitting, it remains incumbent upon us to make that stand. One thing is certain, nothing is to be gained by waiting any longer. May God help us.