But They’re Literally Not People, So It’s Okay, Right? Westworld in the Age of Holocaust Denial

Today I read another analysis about the Holocaust and how we in the United States categorize it. I am a practicing Reform Jew, and this means the discussion of Holocaust history has been painfully present for me for over a decade, and relevant when I was even younger. I recently began watching HBO’s Westworld and I am about to watch the third episode.

***SPOILER ALERT this piece will include content from the first two episodes of the Westworld. Also I haven’t finished it and want to write this piece now, so I won’t reference anything past the end of episode two, but might revisit this topic in later posts.***

Watching the episode recap we see Maeve, the prostitute host, wondering through the compound having woken up on the table where maintenance workers were slicing her open. She makes it all the way to a room where bodies of her fellow hosts are being washed like so much garbage and stares in abject horror. This scene reminds me of one in V for Vendetta when we see V’s backstory. Both these sci-fi stories visually reference real horrors. The real horrors that Jews in concentration camps suffered when having to remove Jewish corpses from the gas chambers.

My first and second reaction to this scene were identical: “but they’re not real.” The very first thing my gut told me to do was assure myself that it was just a story, and thus, no one was actually being harmed. Westworld does a good job of eliciting this dread-filling, stomach wrenching emotion. And of getting me right on board with questioning the humanity of the hosts, that is after all what it is about.

Ethical treatment always comes down to levels of ethical treatment for “greater” and “lesser” beings. For instance it is essentially universally acknowledged that protecting the life of a three year old human being is of greater importance than protecting the life of a three year old dog. In making this decision (and it is one) we rationalize that human life is more precious. This is the complicated reality we live in.

Since the Trump administration actively avoided mentioning Jews on International Holocaust Remembrance Day cases of “softcore” (termed by Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory) Holocaust denial have been creeping onto my news feeds. Prior to that I have watched dozens of Jewish institutions receive threats of violence around the country.

In making reference to dehumanization and the role of AI Westworld joins decades of sci-fi authors, writers and producers in questioning — “If they’re not literally human, is this okay?” The question itself is prescient of the post-Holocaust post-WWII world that we live in. Fear-mongering is easiest when dehumanization has taken place. Profit over caring seems rational when dehumanization has taken place. The genocide of 6,000,000 Jews was possible because dehumanization had taken (and was taking) place.

If we understand all of this then Westworld grappling with these questions is an opportunity for us to examine how we react when dehumanization takes place. How we respond when we are told of acts of violence on the news, instead of in the safety of a fictional world. How we behave towards people we do not know so well and if we should attempt to know more.

Several years ago I spent over two hours interviewing Holocaust survivor Ruth Steinfeld and discussing living under the Nazi regime. What it was like to be treated as abnormal and bad as a young child. The eloquence Ms. Steinfeld exhibited recalling the deaths of most of her family and the way she implored students at a local school to take kindness seriously is something I will never forget.

Jews are attached to the statement “Never Again” in part because it calls for constant action. That action always has to start with humanizing the people around us—with asking how does my reaction to this impact my ability to empathize and sympathize and know more about this person who is different from me? How am I respecting that this person is real to me? How do I make this okay, for the future?