When I was younger, a child still in the throes of innocence, and learned about the Holocaust and World War II, I used to wonder, “How could this happen? How could Germans be OK with registering Jews and committing mass murder?”
It doesn’t take much growth and learning to begin to understand the atrocities that humans are capable of. You receive hate, see hate, learn about hate and prejudice in school. You see it everywhere, in the nooks and crannies of your community. But still you think that a mass movement of hate could never dominate. We have come too far as a culture, you think. We’ve learned from the mistakes of history. We know that scapegoating and hate don’t solve problems.
Since Donald Trump’s win on November 8, hate crimes have increased and fear has spread. Since the Inauguration January 20, Trump has committed to building a wall on the Mexican/U.S. border (which he’s said would be funding by attaching a 20% tax on all Mexican imports), authorized limits on Muslim refugees and immigrants (an authorization that includes religious tests for non-Muslim refugees), rescinded funding to foreign non-profits for women’s health aid, repeated heinous doublespeak by lying about (and obsessing over) the crowd size at his inauguration, signed executive orders enabling movement on the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline, announced plans to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, put a gag on federal scientific agencies, instructed the Interior Department shut down its Twitter account, behaved with utter disdain for the free press, and said he would investigate the supposed voter fraud that made him lose the popular vote by 3 million votes. (It should be noted this is only a partial list of the things he has done.)
It is now January 27. He’s been in office for seven days and already has limited freedom and furthered hate.
I used to wonder how hate can take over like it did in Nazi Germany. But, now I see it happening everyday in America and I wonder less. Trump is a terrifying authoritarian figure, but it is the Republican-controlled Congress and the citizens of the United States who enable him. To quote Elie Wiesel, “Those who kept silent yesterday will keep silent tomorrow.” While there are plenty of dissenters in the United States, people protesting, calling their representatives, creating sanctuary for immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, women, etc., there are still plenty of Americans who are happy with the way things are going. People who are ecstatic about a wall; people who attack Muslims; people who dehumanize women and blame the LGBT community for the pitfalls of society. These people are silent in the face of injustice, but are loud in propagating hate.
I’ve also been contemplating the lessons learned from Dead Poet’s Society. Being that I harbor natural rebelliousness as well as natural ambivalence towards most peer pressures, it was easy for me to watch that film and run with what I saw. Of course you don’t conform. Of course you stand up. Of course you question authority and throw out idiotic metrics that attempt to evaluate the greatness of art. Of course you do the right thing like Nuwanda and tell the whole truth, even at the risk of being expelled. And, of course you read lots of poetry.
But it’s only been the last few days that I really connected the conformity in that film to the reality of 2017. While one student was expelled, and others stood on their desks and shouted, “Oh Captain, my Captain,” in support of Mr. Keating, most students got in line with the school’s expectations. Most students bowed their heads in the final dramatic scene, refusing to look at Robin Williams as he made his departure.
People watching Dead Poets Society probably like to think of themselves as Mr. Keating or Neil or Nuwanda. But most people are probably Cameron, turning on friends and towing the line.
(On a side note, don't be like Knox. His behavior is stalker-y and rape-y.)
And that’s how hate spreads and authoritarians take power. The silence, the ease of expressing hate, the fear of standing out, the fear of being wrong.
We have an abundance of dystopian stories and stories depicting good versus evil. But I’m not sure we see ourselves honestly when we try to relate personally to those stories. We like to think we are Katniss or Peeta, but most of us are really citizens of The Capitol. We like to think we’re Harry or Hermione or Dumbledore or even Snape, but most of us are really Cornelius Fudge or Rufus Srimgeour. We might not be actively corralling people or imprisoning people or spitting on people or beating people, but most of us enable that behavior.
“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
It isn’t enough to acknowledge bad things happen. It isn’t enough to look at the past and say, “I would have done differently,” while remaining silent today. It isn’t enough to say, “Well, I don’t do those things.”
We must stand up. We must refuse to be silent in the face of oppression and hate. The onus is on the individual. We cannot wait for someone else to take action--it must begin with you.
And lest we forget, while George Orwell’s 1984 continues to serve as a warning against totalitarianism, in the end, though he fought and rebelled, Winston Smith loved Big Brother.