Friday, August 30, 2013

Backs, automatic speak, and responsibility for human evil

Backs outside the pub. A reassuring, solid  and unpretentious association.

I am becoming accustomed to the automatic speak of young people in service industries. It is I think the same young woman who questions me today across a counter with the familiar, "are you doing anything with the rest of the day?  Last time it was, "are you doing anything this weekend?" But I am asked that question quite often. Today in the supermarket, I was spared, "do you want any help with packing?" Not so the vigorous middle aged man ahead of me at the checkout despite the fact that he had no more than five small purchases to pack. He  was able to sweep them quickly into his bag.

Human beings, I think to myself as I watch the TV news, having proved themselves capable of love, and the sublime creations of language, music, art and architecture, are also responsible for acts so repulsive that we find it hard to accept their perpetrators as human at all. But they are human. And being human ourselves we must accept some responsibility for their behaviour, however remote it may seem

4 comments:

Tom said...

Sorry Joe, I do not accept your last sentence. It would only, possibly, be true if any individual could exert total (and I mean total) control over another individual. Even Nazi prisoner of war camps proved that was not possible. The nearest to that state that can be achieved is if one individual chooses to put that themselves under the control of another. However, the mere fact of choice makes the control illusory - and hence the responsibility some people feel they need to assume for others.

Roderick Robinson said...

Responsibility in this sense: that we are all homo sapiens, that they have behaved unspeakably, that they have demonstrated what hs is capable of, that we are obliged to look deep into ourselves for signs of what we might share with them. Are we entirely free from the taint that took them to the abyss? May we claim to be another branch of hs, purer and beyond evil influence? Reminding ourselves during the process that it is one thing to issue thought-out genocidal policies and another for those, whose position in society is defined by obedience. to carry them out.

We have a responsibility to ourselves and subsequently to a wider world. The worst crimes are those in which intent is strongest and clear-sighted. At first glance a drunken man who kills another in a brawl may be said to have committed a worse crime than a financier who has mulcted assets that weren't his over a period of years. The result is certainly worse but which is the worse crime? Which of the two is the more demonstrable criminal?

And, significantly, how much of ourselves can we see in either? In fact the choice probably boils down to opportunity: we are more likely to lash out than plan fraud. And thus we should reflect on that word likelihood. There but for the grace of my education, my upbringing, my general interests, my shakily devised philosophies, the guidance I have received from others and (For I am essentially middle-class) my fear of behaving inappropriately - there but for all these things go I.

We must accept responsibilities for those unspeakables because their behaviour is salutary and we profit from it. Never mind the heights mankind can rise to, we can contemplate those lolling on a couch. Instead reflect on the depths; try to comprehend the banality of evil rather than merely demonising it. It's a responsible thing to do.

Joe Hyam said...

Tom I am afraid that my liking for aphoristic statements in pursuit of conciseness may have over simplified the matter. Robbie has filled out my thoughts better than I could. At the back of my mind was John Donne's much quoted Meditation, which because the words are so relevant I will, forgive me, quote again.
"No man is an island entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were; as well as it a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
In the same way, I was thinking that every man's cruelty and vileness diminishes me.

Robbie Thank you for putting so well the reasons behind the flashes of horror afforded by TV news pictures which bring home the dimensions of disgusting actions hard for any of us sitting at home in comfort to take in. Nothing new about the cruel behaviour of homo sapiens; it is just that nowadays the camera and the screen drive it home with such force.

Tom said...

Joe; Whilst John Donne's meditation sounds sounds fine, I doubt that the 'clod be washed away by the sea' etc. is particularly apt when describing humanity. Of course we need to recognise that given appropriate conditions we can all behave in totally unacceptable ways. I have no argument with that, but that is not the same as saying we each must accept a little responsibility for the actions of everyone else. That is tantamount to saying that you and I must share a small amount of the guilt for that chemical attack. Guilt serves one purpose only, and that is to tell us as individuals that we have wronged, and that we as individuals must make amends.

Well, I have said my piece for what it's worth. We may never agree on this matter, but that's alright. We each see situations from slightly, or totally, different standpoints. Closure, uh?