The upcoming commemorations of the end of WWII remind me of the many statues I have seen across Europe, all the military graveyards, former concentration camps or other types of scars from the past. They all mean to express one and the same message: We never want this to happen again. No more slavery, no more colonization, no more territorial disputes, no more Nazism, Fascism, Racism. The memorials represent a frozen state of `Evil`, as if it is something that belongs to the past and has now been forever extinguished.
Traveling Europe sheds a new light on the shared rejection of `Evil`. `Evil` is always represented as a phenomenon from the past, from an earlier period in time when people cast aside their moral values to protect their own lives. When people could still be manipulated. Inhabitants of Western Europe hope to believe that those days ended in 1945. Inhabitants of Eastern Europe have felt free since the early 1990s, combined with all the trouble and uncertainty that freedom brings along. The Yugoslavian example shows that genocide could still occur in the 1990s. Riots after the independence of Kosovo prove that international conflicts can still lead to outbreaks of violence. `It`s the Balkan temperament`, say voices from the West, explaining that such things only happen in far-away areas with hot weather. `It wouldn`t have happened if the Serbs were not so hot-blooded`, some Slovenians told me. `It`s Croatian nationalism that lit the fire`, I also heard people say.
..overthinking the concept of civilisation
But how uncivilized were those Yugoslavians? How much of an uncivilised country was Germany before WWII? Both countries were doing reasonably well in the years that preceded the wars. In both cases, `Evil` and and apparent and sudden lack of civilisation did appear out of the blue. Instead, and paradoxically, they were injected into the people as the ultimate protection of their civilisation against evil external influences.
If there is one thing that history teaches us, it`s the rule that the imminent physical survival of the individual beats the system of moral values. The same is true for the physical survival - whether imagined, projected or real - of a group of people that defines itself by common characteristics. As soon as they start directing their energy towards what they have projected to be the threat to their survival, they will nourish the `Evil` that will enable them to fulfill their objectives. To eradicate Jews from Germany, to wipe Israel off the map, to smoke people along the axis of evil out of their homes, to punish the non-believers from the West. Only to name a few examples.
`Evil` comes masked as a present. As an easy answer to people`s fears and anxieties. It can however be recognised by one simple characteristic: it always solves the problem at the expense of something or somebody else, contaminating the other party by creating a need of competition. No matter how civilised either party is in the beginning of the process, as long as neither side acknowledges that its initiatives were born out of fear and anxiety, the problem only can only get worse. Even when it appears to have been solved, the solution can only be temporary. Until the next revolution, until the next change of government, until the next natural disaster, until the leader of the government or even opposition is killed, until the enemy also finds the recipe for atomic weapons and until the one who had the recipe before manages to trace down the suspected weapon reserves of the enemy.
Former Yugoslavia is an example of how things go wrong ? and a proof that such events are barely related to civilisation and `the time we live in`. History repeats itself and the Yugoslavia case shows how easy it is to find reasons for people to violently protect their heritage, even if that heritage is largely based on values that they share with their newly created enemy.
The Yugoslavia tribunal in The Hague has listed several former Yugoslav army officials as war criminals. What the tribunal does not understand is how these `criminals` are still widely seen as national heroes by the local population. Like religion, war serves as an excuse to let go with common sense and empathy. Crimes committed during wars are only relevant to outsiders and to the enemy. Outsiders want justice, the enemy wants revenge. People from the same group will respect their leader for his brave way of saying what needs to be said, and his focus on the needs of the subordinates: Employment, a reason to live and a fear to die, food, excitement. Any small mistakes committed along the line, including genocide, are deemed to be accepted as minor barriers on the way to the grand goal: World Democracy, Regional Supremacy, Domination of a Religion, Imperialism, Revenge for Suppression, or more commonly: the Survival of the Group and its Common Attributes.
Society and culture leave their imprint on people without them actively knowing it. You need to take a fish out of the sea for it to understand what the sea is. People who are part of a system without having access to an external view on that system can easily be manipulated. And thereby, oppressed and/or mobilized to fight for the abovementioned Grand Goals.
Such manipulation is taking place on a constant basis. A system easily gets spoilt by manipulation, making it even harder to escape the system and look at it from the outside. The holocaust in Germany took decades of gradual preparation. Most of that happened behind closed doors, but the system using the catalyzing force of public opinion for its own ends. The consequences remained invisible until the years after the war, even though the entire system was backing practices that nobody could ever possibly qualify as morally acceptable. Who to blame? One man? The system? Or the people who together constitute the system?
This question of who is to blame, as it is for example posed in the case of the Yugoslavia trials, is almost impossible to answer. Labeling one person as `evil` does not solve the problem, neither does imprisoning that person prevent the exact same things to happen at a later point in time. Possibly in a different country, probably with different actors, but very probably: all derived from a system that justifies antisocial measures as a measure to protect moral supremacy.
Publicly portraying one group of people as the visual representation of evil, is a guarantee for the development of the very same evil such initiative attempts to denounce. It washes all the blame away from the community who issues the reproaches, which makes its members artificially self-confident and temporarily stronger. In the international context: nationalistic, patriotic and ready to fight for the protection of their good. At a heavy price. That of social isolation of the subjects of their projections, psychological suppression, the aimed destruction of a set of shared values and eventually, the destruction of the members of the group. As happened in Yugoslavia, as happened during communist regimes, as happened during WWII and as it will happen again if governments and civilians choose to remain ignorant about the cultural diversity that is typical for their streets, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, countries, continents and worlds.
Only the combination of knowledge, understanding and empathic tolerance serves as the single true protection against the development of `evil` within individuals and communities. Understanding foreign cultures, anticipating what behaviour they will incite, and using those values to the advantage of a bigger community is the only way to create sustainable peace.
The current political situation in The Netherlands, and in many countries across the `democratic world`, is very worrying for the way it presumes moral superiority over its immigrant population. But how superiour are these values? How much do Dutch people care about each other if they don`t know their family members or neighbours? How can there actually be a discussion in The Netherlands about reinstalling the death penalty? How much do Dutch people care about immaterial wealth? How independent are Americans really if they don`t get proper instructions of how to use devices, thinking of the stereotypical cat-in-the-microwave example? How much do the French really need all the medicine thet take? How come English people care more about the lives of celebrities than about their own lives? How westerners have so much more choice than people in Africa yet apparently have such a hard time to be simply happy? How can so many people need plastic surgery while nobody ever needed it before? How much meat do we still need to eat to survive? What`s life if you spend 40 hours a week in an office drinking coffee and securing your own position? How would the English feed themselves if they could no longer buy ready-made meals in supermarkets? How can people marry and divorce in repetitive cycles? How can people start preferring sleep over sex because they are too busy for either of them? How can people claim that gun possession promotes safety? How much do we really want to depend on satellite navigation rather than just using our own perception to get around? How can we expect people to learn foreign languages if we are not able to learn foreign languages ourselves?
How perfect is our Western world really and how civilised are we?
How much can we learn from the cultures that we slowly but surely start casting aside as `evil`?
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