Underestimate the impulse to co-operate at your peril - Business Day

Feb 05, 2018
5 February 2018 - The Nazi-era Eichmanns of the world take human fallibility to frightening depths,


By Michael Morris

I once gave a stranger R200 on the strength of a tale of woe and a promise that he’d pay it back — by electronic transfer — and so justly merited the keen if good-natured ribbing from my family, whose judgment proved more acute than my own.

There was no evading the truth that, in my case at least, the borderland between trust and naivety is a region of jeopardy, poorly signposted and best approached in an alert frame of mind. I like to think there is some virtue in taking the risk of trusting that people are as good as they seem at first glance, though a concession to caution is doubtless justified.

Just recently I read a book about a man who, while living incognito, was fondly remembered as polite and charming, an accomplished violinist who delighted his intimates of that time with performances of Beethoven and Mozart — and who, later on, had been so lovably present in his youngest son’s universe that, after dad "disappeared", the little boy waited every evening, sad and puzzled, longing for his affectionate father’s return.

It is joltingly perverse that his father’s name was Adolf Eichmann, a primary figure of terror in perpetrating Nazi Germany’s Final Solution and whose depravity is stark in his reportedly declaring — on the record, as it were, but more as a profession than a confession — that he would "leap laughing into the pit, because the feeling that he had 6-million people on his conscience would be a source of extraordinary satisfaction to him".

The Eichmanns of the world take human fallibility to frightening depths and yet remain human, capable of some affection or a measure of the cultural finesse that features somewhere in our conception of what it means to be civilised.

Eichmann is an extreme example, and my convincing conman a trivial one; we can live with falling for wily down-and-outers, but who could doubt the costs of misjudging the truer nature of individuals like Eichmann, their motives, meanness and guile?

If it’s at once bewildering and discomforting to acknowledge that such people are seldom sole agents, acting as individuals, but rather are enabled by the actions or acquiescence of a faceless, unnamed many caught up in the torments of their time, the greater risk is assuming as a matter of ideology or conviction that people are innately venal and antisocial and can only function collectively under the dictates of an imposed order.

The urge to usurp human agency — as if, left to themselves, people make naturally selfish choices that come at a cost to others — sits deeply in much ideological thinking about how societies ought to live.

A striking, if contradictory, illustration of such reasoning appeared in an opinion piece in 2017 by Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi. In his spirited endorsement of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, which, while encompassing some uncontroversial measures ("preventing educators from conducting business with the state", for instance), proposes to undermine the role of parents by limiting the powers of school governing bodies.

Lesufi wrote that the law "recognises that divisiveness comes naturally and that a conscious, concerted effort is required to further the goals of social justice and equality".

Here, "social justice and equality" are beyond the imagination and reach of people, for the "concerted effort" the MEC has in mind is not citizens acting in concert, but society being told what it must do and what not.

It is one thing to be foolish enough to fall for a tale of woe, but it’s another to misjudge the motive optimism and energy of people whose belonging in society rests on consent and social co-operation. Eroding it by design, history suggests, always produces the germinal conditions of tyranny.

*Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

Read article on BDLive here.


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