We can identify hate. But then what?

In my third year of University — about six years ago now — I took a class called The Holocaust in which the professor’s main thesis for the course was that humans are predisposed to become sadists in the right environment.

At the time, I was a history and English literature major, and enrolled in University originally with the plan to teach history at the high school level. More than half of the classes I enrolled in seemed to ask the question ‘why study history?’ at the onset. You know, usually as one of those opening day questions, to get to know each other and to try and give some semblance of meaning to our field of study.

Typically I would settle on the response that knowing history is the only way to ensure we do not repeat it. Eventually, this lost meaning to me and I switched my focus more toward literature, but that’s not what matters. Honestly, I’m not sure why it lost meaning to me. Depending on whether I was optimistic or pessimistic at the time, it wavered between faith that humanity will know not to repeat things and doubting that humanity is capable of learning from their mistakes at all — even if some actively choose to study, profess, and prevent that trend.

I digress. I had looked up to the particular professor who led our lectures and seminars on the Holocaust since before I even enrolled in his classes. He was one of the reasons I even chose the educational institution I did. On this thesis — that humans are predisposed to sadism — I thought it would be simple to disagree with him.

We read Auschwitz by Miklos Nyiszli, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, to name a few. Even The Holocaust Industry by Norman Finkelstein. We were told that, in previous years of running the course, it had taken place at night. The professor had been adamant that the course be switched to a morning course because the mental health of students was being so unbelievably strained.

It’s not an easy thing to study, and maybe that’s one of the take aways — that ignorance is just so much easier. But each work — either first-hand account, or pessimistic look back on profiting from other people’s suffering — was another arrow in my professor’s quiver that sadism was a learned behaviour, and humans were programmed to easily consume those particular lessons.

While the class mostly surveyed the Holocaust, the professor left two seminars at the end of the year to discuss the Cambodian and Rwandan genocide. It ended up being an extremely powerful way to — in my opinion — prove the thesis. We didn’t learn how to prevent genocides by Cambodia or Rwanda; why would we know now?

By now, you know this rambling is a result of the events in Charlottesville. And one thought that I keep going back to from my 21-year-old brain. One simple notion that separated me from unequivocally believing that humans are inclined to become sadistic. Or, at the very least, from believing that we could fall victim to such unbelievably heinous beliefs and acts again. It would be easily recognizable and we could easily stop it.

The first part — I would still contend — is right. We’ve done an excellent job of noticing and flagging the bigotry. But do we actually know how to stop these things? We’re not actively allowing disenfranchised white supremacists to resurface because a few decide to start using their voices, are we? At the very worse, some of us are passively allowing it, and that might be enough.

Listen. I don’t know how to stop it. But I know we all recognize it. Writing this is the best way I personally know how.

We surround ourselves with like-minded people, so it’s easy to ignore the abhorrent viewpoints of others. I don’t believe we do this constructively, but we do it. This may get read by people who only already agree with me, and then maybe it does nothing. But perhaps one of you has the courage to know a better way to stop it, and you’ve felt too terror-stricken to share it. Hopefully this informs you that there are people willing to listen.

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