Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Boy in the Striped Pajamas": Acts of Violence Begin with Murderous Thoughts and Words

Steve and I watched "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" yesterday evening.  We found it disturbing, raising probing questions about how different our moral optic is on situations when we ourselves (or our own kind) happen to be the ones subject to social censure and even violence.  And so the constant challenge, what might be called the fundamental moral imperative: to develop our imaginative ability to place ourselves in the situations of those on the margins of society, those most susceptible to denigration and abuse in our particular society.  I won't say too much about the plot, in case any reader hasn't seen this 2008 film (or read John Boyne's novel with the same title, on which it's based).

One thought I would like to share, however, is this: in one respect, the film is a story about moral tutelage, about the way in which our moral choices find themselves enfleshed in our lives and in the world around us, insofar as we have influence on that world.  And so the concretization of our internal moral decisions in the external circumstances of our lives and the world in which we live forces us to see those decisions--to inspect them, to ask if they were good or bad moral decisions.

As many of our mothers will have told us repeatedly when we were growing up, "What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."  The problem with making a bad moral choice is that, unless we rectify it at some point, it inevitably leads to another bad choice, which in turn creates another unavoidable moral crossroads for us.  One lie leads to another, which in its turn demands another dodging of the truth, and another and another--as Marci Hamilton is pointing out right now in commentary on the Vatican's attempt to explain away its 1997 letter to the Irish bishops, commentary to which I'll link in a moment.

And so one turning point in this film, which is about what the family of a Nazi officer discovers as they are relocated from Berlin to a house beside a concentration camp during the war--a camp in which Jews are being gassed and incinerated: when the wife of the officer finds out what is happening, and her husband's role in the murder of Jews, the hell of the camp finds its way inside the family's life.  The couple quarrel for days.

And his response to her?  He points out that, while she is balking at the extermination of a race she considers inferior, she has talked, like many other Germans, about the need to rid the Fatherland of Jewish vermin.  Her own discourse is the foundation for the actions to which she objects.  By choosing a discourse of implicit murder regarding a group of vulnerable human beings, she has created the condition for the actual murder of that group of human beings.

The moral of the story is clear: if you do not want your society (or any society) to target a set of human beings, do not begin talking about that set of human beings as if they are less than human.  Do not speak of them as vermin, as half-human.  Or as intrinsically disordered.  And as having only "alleged human rights."  And as having "lost touch" with the human race.  Or as diseased in some unique way that undermines the health of society.

When we first set off on the path of rhetorical violence and rhetorical dehumanization of a despised minority, we create the conditions for real violence against, including murder of, a despised minority.  The sin of violence against the vulnerable is not merely a sin of this and that act of violence against members of the minority.  It is a sin that begins, first of all, in our own minds and hearts, and which first takes root in our words.

Which is why, when acts of horrific violence like what took place in Tucson recently occur in a nation's political life, it is not good enough to say that the person perpetrating those acts is a crazed, isolated killer.  The conditions that permit violence like this to happen over and over again in American culture with such astonishing ease begin with all of us, with the rest of us.

Who keep on talking violence and thinking violence, and not demanding better in our public square.  And who share the guilt of the violence around us every bit as much as the wife of the Nazi soldier in this story does, when she finds out that the rhetoric she has promoted about subhuman Jews has a murderous price in the real world, when someone finally has the power to enact that rhetoric.

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