There was a rather thought provoking article in Tuesday’s Herald by Gwynne Dyer, “Gentle Monsters offer a lesson,” that raised some past thoughts in my mind.
It discusses how the public are very unwilling to see infamous dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as human. The magnitude of their carnage means that it is necessary to push them outside the realms of what it means to be human. And to try and understand those individuals is a “small step towards forgiving them and admiring them,” which could be seen to be a serious mistake.
It then goes on to raise another person, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, whose image was made famous by Andy Warhol and in the movie Motorcycle Diaries. He was seen as a warrior of romantic revolutionary hero who eventually died for his cause. But he also advocated “relentless hatred of the enemy that… [transforms] us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines”.
Is the difference between the humanity of Che and the monstrousness of Stalin merely that one got into power? The main thrust of the article is that if we always regard those that commit acts of inhumanity as monsters, then it will preclude lessons being learnt from our history, that those in the past are all human.
My follow-up to this is to think about the lessons learnt. For me, the cause of the greatest “malevolent” acts and the greatest of “benevolent” acts comes from excessive idealism or values. Soon as your value for anything exceeds the value of human life, then genocide, matyrdom, assassination, suicide and murder will appear. Hitler was well known with his ideals of an Aryan nation and the purging of the Jews. Communists also had their idealist vision.
I don’t think you can separate these ideals into Good and Bad ideals. They are just ideals held by people, to varying states of zeal. A zealot for whatever purpose can be a martyr or a murderer.
Then I think I have my rejoinder to a Camus quote that bewildered me:
“There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”
This might be a serious question to some, but as I take it as a given that life is worth living, then it is not relevant to me. To me there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is martyrdom or sacrifice. Deciding whether or not your life is worth giving for your values or the people in your life.
Of course, anyone who says yes, me included, could be potentially a Monster in another context. But I would also say that all change agents too would answer yes. Of course, this is all morally ambiguous, but immediately it reconciles the labelling of heroes as terrorists and vice-versa. We'd all be safe if we lived in a passionless world of grinding life, as Camus may have thought with his thoughts on suicide, but then suicide would be a palatable option. Or we can live in a dangerous, vibrant hopeful world where people actually hold onto ideals, values and beliefs and meaning is freely given as well as lives.