I have been prompted to write this by Brendan O’Neill’s editorial in Spiked. O’Neill argues that the Shoah should not be used as an analogy for every state-sponsored act of mass murder; that Hitler should not be the go-to analogy for every murderous or authoritarian leader; and that the unique and particular aim of the Final Solution should not be obscured by the deaths and suffering of others alongside Jews.
As my fingers type and I re-read my paraphrase of O’Neill’s editorial, I realise how unable I am to hold these arguments in my head. As a student of history, I have read and – from the safe and vicarious distance of the TV screen – watched accounts of almost inconceivable acts of inhumanity over millennia. The effect is numbing.
A DAY IN DECEMBER
I don’t mean that my sensibility is dulled by my attempts to make sense of these atrocities. Let me use an analogy.
In December 2000, I fell from a ladder. I felt something break, with significant force. As I attempted to stand, I noticed that my left kneecap was half way up my thigh. I tried to push it back but failed. No wonder, as the tendon that attached my quadriceps to my lower leg had snapped.
If you try to imagine what it feels like to have four quivering muscles, freed of their attachment to bone, suddenly clenched in a tight knot at the top of your leg, you are likely to do one or more of three things. Firstly, you may shudder and say, “I can’t imagine how that felt.” Secondly, you might shrug and say, “At least it wasn’t any worse” or that it’s only like many similar injuries you’ve heard of. Thirdly, you could compare it to a trauma of your own and say that, actually, you can imagine how it felt. But here is the particular. Here is my unique experience: immediately after the patellar tendon snapped, my leg went numb.
For me, in that situation, my body’s reaction to severe pain was to shut it out. My consciousness of the situation was also dulled. I was able to lie on the ground and cheerily chat to my neighbour while waiting for the ambulance. And my memory of the trauma has dimmed, even though I repeated the injury twice more.
So what? For me, recounting my experience does three things. Firstly, it helps me to better understand how my body and brain deal with extremely unpleasant sensations. Secondly, it shows me how quickly I lapse into analogy. And thirdly, it suggests to me that only by looking at the uniqueness of an event, a person or an experience can I hope to make sense of it.
WHY WE NEED ANALOGY
If I may now generalise from my own experience, it seems that humans have the ability to zoom out from the particular to our sense of ‘the universal’, to what is similar and to what is comparable. It allows us to give meaning to whatever we sense or recall. It may also enable us to empathise with someone whose experience we have not shared. And it becomes possible to exercise judgement about these experiences. All are necessary because they allow us to respond rationally, to feel appropriately and to learn.
Let me offer another analogy. Eight years ago, the car I was driving was hit by another car at around 40 miles an hour. My car was stationary, in the middle of the road, as I prepared to make a right turn. I saw the other car approaching in my rear view mirror and I responded.
Firstly, I judged its speed and likely impact. By comparing its approach with other cars I had seen racing towards me in the past, I was able to determine that this was going to hit us with considerable but survivable force. I knew that I had no time to take evasive action.
Secondly, I decided how to respond. Having been shunted before, having heard of others’ experiences and having discussed what to do in situations like these, I said nothing to my twelve year-old daughter, who was sitting beside me. I reasoned that her chances of an injury would be reduced if she didn’t tense up before the impact. I weighed that up against the shock she would experience when the car hit us and decided that the physical risk was greater than any mental harm.
Thirdly, after our car had been forced along and off the road by the impact, after I had checked that my daughter was physically fine, I left the car and responded to the driver of the other car. The front of his car was smashed in, far more significantly than the back of ours. His airbags had gone off. A boy, younger than my daughter, was crying hysterically in his car. He was very emotional as he approached me. Imagining the guilt he would be feeling, the pain and shock he would have experienced on impact and the concern he would have for the boy, I put my hands up and said, “We’re okay. Go and look after your son.”
All of this was within a minute; my first response probably took no more than a second. Not only could I rationalise, judge and empathise; I could do it at alarming speed.
We can do this because humans are amazing. We take in everything, make sense of it and make use of it. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t recapitulate and reorder these experiences in our own terms. Each time we do this, we reorder every other recorded experience, so that the next experience is seen (if this isn’t too reductive a metaphor) with new eyes.
Or perhaps not. What I describe may only be the case in laboratory conditions, where one doesn’t refuse to learn from experience, one doesn’t negate the feelings of others, one doesn’t exercise flawed judgement. Which, of course, one does. I do. We cannot escape from the subjective (any more than I can recount my car crash objectively). But I would argue that this is matter of quality: however faulty our judgement, we still make sense, and use, of experience.
In short, everything is analogised.
WHY THE PARTICULAR IS MORE POWERFUL
The danger of relying on our ability to make sense of everything is that we miss meaning. Returning to Brendan O’Neill’s argument, if we try to compare everyone’s suffering, every act of unspeakable evil, every authoritarian leader, to one nationality, one ideology, one man, we risk negating both sides of the analogy: each loses its unique power.
Firstly, numbers matter. “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” I see validity in this statement; I do not need it to be incorrectly attributed to Josef Stalin (though it is interesting that people need a hook onto which to hang such an ugly observation). I cannot conceive of, say, the systematic starvation or mass execution of everyone in Chorleywood (all 11,286 of us), let alone hundreds of thousands or millions. Looking at the structure of my arguments, you will gather that I think in threes: after that, individual numbers seem to lose significance.
Secondly, meaning matters. Over history, each huge act of inhumanity has had its unique set of causes, even if the consequences may be similar and even if parallels may be drawn. In trying to understand why one of these acts occurred and to learn how not to repeat the act, there is a danger that we simply assimilate what we see, hear or read, in accordance with a set of preconceived ideas about such acts. History only repeats itself in our limited narratives; in fact, history is an endless set of unique sequels. All too often, those sequels feature a long-harboured grudge or suspicion from another time.
Thirdly, we matter. Each of us. That is perhaps the only universal truth in all of this. Faced with another human being, unless your view is distorted by prejudice, your sensibilities numbed by generalisation, your feelings overwhelmed by emotions not directly attributable to this person, you are likely to respond humanely. In general, before we act inhumanly, we have to dehumanise the subject of our action.
So when I try to conceive of the Shoah, of what happened to innocent people in one specific period of history, I resort to the particular, as generalisation and imagination fail me. The film, Shoah, was a starting point, as it allowed the survivors to speak for themselves. Inviting Judy Benton into my class helped me better understand how a daughter responded to her humiliation at school, her parents’ arrest and deportation and to the risk to her own life. Listening to Zigi Shipper speak at a holocaust memorial event taught me how a man deals with his boyhood experiences of incarceration, forced labour, starvation, cruelty and ubiquitous death.
Although it is the site of an act perpetrated against people who were not Jewish, a visit to Oradour-sur-Glâne showed me the impact on individual lives of one reprisal among tens of thousands. That wasn’t simply an act by a nation, according to an ideology or under the orders of a dictator; it was a series of acts by individual human beings who had lost sight of the humanity of their victims. Or, as I told my eight year-old daughter at the time, “This wasn’t just about the Germans or the Nazis. This was people forgetting that we need to love each other.”
Judge not lest you be judged? No: love one another
We cannot avoid making judgements. Returning to my car crash, things could have been different. I might have misjudged the speed of the oncoming car and the force of the impact, which might have caused us to career into opposing traffic. My daughter’s shock on impact might have caused her more distress than it did. The other driver might have seen the accident differently and come at me with a tyre iron or a lawsuit. There are times when we have to exercise judgement and we may not always get it right.
What I take from all this is that we need to treat each situation, each ideology, each authoritarian leader as unique. If we generalise or apply lessons from other situations, we should tread carefully, in case we misinterpret what we see. And if we find ourselves called upon to judge and respond to others, love and respect for the individual are probably good starting points.
In short, Trump is not Hitler (and Muslims aren’t terrorists).