Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.


19 thoughts on “Imagine That!

  1. This is a dilemma that faces more than you and your students Hugh. I see that student’s reaction in my own husband (yeah, I know, very troubling for me). Polarisation of attitudes is occurring enmasse even more these days. When people justify killing of others based on nothing more than prejudices (that must come from early indoctrination to be so deep seated). Mostly, these simmering attitudes sit just under the surface of society, until an event triggers the ‘blame game.’ One might note that DT is the current master of the blame game. It doesn’t take long for that game to turn to war, and then genocide. And it’s instigators have no sympathy, love or empathy for those that they eliminate. They explain, that it simply had to be done if society is to be the good sheeple required to keep the illusion of tranquility while the environment is denuded of life.

  2. Hugh, I am stunned by the certainty of the young man who said he would be one the gassing side. He may want to be on the side of “winning” in his sadistic view of the matter, but how does he know he would be? The Nazis turned on intellectuals, gypsies, gays, and Jews. If someone felt you were not being Nazi enough, they could turn you in. What if they arrested your mother, father, sister, brother or wife? Would he still be on the gassing side?

    The sadness of his remarks, is human nature will tend to save their own skin. But, I guess what bothers me is the certainty that he would be on the gassing side. I guess the most suitable response to him would be I guess you should prepare to die alone.


  3. Dear Hugh,

    This lack of empathy is demonstrated by many of President Trump’s followers, make them all too willing to play the blame game and to hate others like minorities or immigrants who they incorrectly perceive as taking away their advantages.

    While they live in this lie, they can’t see the forest from the trees and all the logic, facts, studies refuting their reality can’t make a dent in their way of thinking.

    Hugs, Gronda

  4. There is a book: /Political Ponerology, A science on the nature of evil adjusted for political purposes/ by Andrzej Łobaczewski, which addresses this problem at the political level.  To understand this, one would need to seriously study the concept of ponerology, or evil.  Another way to put it is, this individual is utterly bereft of compassion or empathy; everything s/he considers is in terms of how it may best serve her/him.  Many years ago when asked to define what I meant by “sin” I had to describe “sin” as I understood it, and this is what I came up with: sin is anything in thought, word or deed that causes, or has the potential to cause, pain, hurt, damage or loss to another for my own benefit.  It was reported that when asked to define how he understood his “clients” – the Nazi war criminals held in detention at Nuremberg, the chief psychologist said, “They have no empathy.”  Your student was of that variety.  The danger is when such individuals gain power over others and of course most of them do because that is their only reason for living.

  5. Ethics is a particularly human thing and causes some of us endless trouble. We would have been much happier if we had not eaten of that tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it is the result of self-consciousness. We do put ourselves into other people’s shoes in every story we read and every film we watch ; how far we go will depend on how seriously we take our empathy. Some carry self sacrifice to death they cannot bear to see suffering and will go to any lengths to alleviate it.
    Today we are bombarded with horror and one effect of this has been to immunize us as we have our own lives to get on with. Human nature is such that it must survive , it cannot give way to the effect of constant horror it must shut it out or suffer mental breakdown.

      • Sometimes I think horror is an entertainment stimulus , just look and see how popular macabre horror movies have become , and if anyone objects there is a loud shout of censorship. Viewing cruelty somehow insulates us from the real thing even if it is in HD. I remember the early horror movies ; only the women covered their faces young men were supposed to be far to brave and stalwart rather like John Wayne.
        Much good has come from sorrowful loss ; women have lossed their husband’s to cancer and started groups to help others in similar situations ; sorrow is a wonderful teacher. The practice of cruelty to animals or those humans weaker than ourselves slowly dehumanizes us.
        ‘ I am in blood stepped in so far
        that should I wade no more,
        Returning were as tedious as go o’er ‘

      • I have vented about the entertainment industry often — too often some would say. I do think it is to blame for much of our insensitivity and lack of imagination. We become like doctors or policemen who see horror all the time and become inured to it. It becomes unreal.

  6. My jaw literally dropped when I read the story of the young man … I had to read it 3 times to make sure I was reading it right. I wonder what became of him? I hope he didn’t join the police force.

    Something you said mirrors my own thoughts. Those who, today, believe they have “been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives” have lived relatively easy lives in Middle Class America. I know some of them, and they never spent a day homeless, or had to live on ramen noodles for weeks on end. They’ve never been forced to leave their homes in bombed out neighborhoods and seek shelter wherever they could. So … what have they got to be so bitter about? I have said before, I wish all those who complain about their comfy middle class lives could be forced to spend 6 months living in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq, and then come tell me how bad they had it.

    It is only in the last few years that I’ve come to realize how many in this nation have no empathy, no compassion, but think only of how to make their own lives better. Rude awakening.

    • I often wonder if we complain about triffles because we never knew suffering, real suffering — the sort of suffering you describe. Surely, it contributes to our lack of sensitivity. Dostoevsky thought humans need to suffer in order to become truly free, to become truly human. And he knew whereof he spoke!

      • You have hit the nail on the head. I fully agree with Dostoevsky. I remember an employee one time who was nearly suicidal over a fender-bender she had in her car. Her dramatics and the fact that she required time off to heal (she had not been injured) emotionally just floored me. Relatively speaking, that was the worst that she had ever faced, and to her, it was earth-shattering, while to me it would have been nothing more than a pffft moment. It’s all relative to experience, I suppose.

  7. some people baffle me; it’s hard for a sensitive person to comprehend how some can be so cold and unfeeling about his fellow man.

    i’m back home, have book in hand and have truly been enjoying it… it deserves a very good review… not thihs week as a reception will be soon, but hopefully next week! thanks again, and i’m honored to be one of the three!


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