Why I Read what is Shocking

Submitted by hadrian on Fri, 01/31/2014 - 13:40

Ever since I was in the final years of high school I started choosing books about shocking topics. One of the first of these was A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah where he describes the experiences of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, based on his personal experiences. More recently I read Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, a political-philosophical account of the totalitarian governments that have ruled in Germany and Bolshevik Russia. This account, of course, included very detailed explanations not only of what was found in concentration camps but also about the operation of these camps and the Russian gulag camps. Here in the Netherlands part of the history of the second World War, including some facts about the concentration camps, are taught in high school and I never had any problem believing these terrible things happened. After reading Hannah Arendt the moral part about my brain had difficulty believing what happened even though I was fully aware that these stories weren't invented. I would never deny the holocaust, I can only deny understanding why any person would want to so fully control the actions and thoughts of human beings. The totalitarian experiment seems almost an experiment in playing god, especially the old testament version.

Other books of the shocking category that I can list are:

  • 1984 - George Orwell

  • Hommage to Catalonia - George Orwell

  • The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins

These five books, at this moment, particularly stand out. Of all of these the only one that is strictly fictional is 1984 yet the situation as described in 1984 can easily be placed in totalitarian countries. Together with The Origins of Totalitarianism it truly impresses the utter destruction of anything good humanity has to offer in those systems and I'm glad not to have lived in such societies. If one can really talk about living in such societies, that is.

Hommage to Catalonia and A Long Way Gone both describe actual wars. The former is perhaps the least shocking of all these books and describes Orwell's experiences fighting for the Spanish republic in the civil war. From a personal experience he is able to describe how the republic destroyed itself from the inside. The republic not only tried to fight the Falangist army but its own as well. Many members of the 'wrong' party were imprisoned, even volunteers from outside of Spain, simply because of their party membership. It's safe to say that the Spanish civil war would have been a comical farce, if it hadn't claimed the life of half a million people.

A Long Way Gone is shocking for wholly different reasons as it shows an account of how children are taken from their parents, indoctrinated, given a gun, and forced to kill. It is well-known that children are very effective soldiers because they don't yet have the ability to think critically and do exactly as they are told and are also smaller targets to boot. Whether or not adult soldiers have greater qualms with killing enemy child-soldiers as opposed enemy adult soldiers I do not know. Either way, the use of child soldiers is understandably deplorable yet still common throughout the world.

The God Delusion is shocking because of different reasons. I have no problems with someone stating the chance that god exists is so negligently small; I do it myself. As such, there are no religious reasons for me to oppose the book. Instead, Dawkins gives us some accounts of how dogmatic religious people react to Atheists, especially in the United States. Hate-mail is not uncommon and coming out as an atheist can be as scary and difficult as comming out as gay for the exact same reasons. There are many atheists in the United States who report having been ostracized after their coming out. Not to start on the penalty for apostasy in some Islamic countries. I said different reasons, but in one way The God Delusion is shocking for the exact same reason as The Origins of Totalitarianism. Apostasy is, of course, not a crime. It is simply a state of mind, an opinion, protected by article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. As such, it is what Orwell called a thoughtcrime. Orwell's 1984 is commonly cited as a warning for the future yet thoughtcrime has been part of religion ever since the commandment which says 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.'

A common internet-meme these days is the statement of 'Faith in humanity lost/restored.' Shocking books like this definitely fall in the 'lost' category. So, to come back to the original question, why do I actually read them. Why don't I just turn a blind eye, put my head in the sand, and wait it out. This is because of two reasons:

  • I simply can't. In order not to see the evils wrought by humankind I'd have to literally put my head in the sand and it's quite hard to breath down there.

  • The most important thing one can do in the fight against evil is to learn to recognize it.

If I turn a blind eye to the concept of totalitarianism and other types of evil, how can I be expected to be watchful. The sheer sense of destruction is so vast that it is almost impossible to imagine. I know from long experience that a person's zeitgeist makes it very hard to imagine anything new to that zeitgeist, even though the zeitgeist has arguably changed more over the last twenty years than in the hundred years before that. And more in the last hundred years than in the fifteen hundred before that. When one takes a look at past predictions of the future one sees how much it tends to be influenced by the zeitgeist of the day. That doesn't say it doesn't happen. Fortunately there are always the dreamers who imagine a better future, even though what they imagine may seem impossible. However, the dreamers are usually painfully aware of past and present evils. Richard Dawkins isn't the first and certainly won't be the last to put the responsibility for a lot of the current evils in the world on blind faith. However, blind faith is not the only cause of evil.

These days, many people have faith in the God of scripture but few seem to have any faith in humanity. To list just a few statements of utter despair in humanity:

  • You can't trust the common people to maintain order themselves

  • People will always be bad to each other

  • There has always been evil

  • Generally, humans are idiots

Is this, however, the absolute truth? Is humanity truly beyond redemption? I answer this question with a resounding no. True, humanity has a lot of stains in its history and, because it's history, they are indelible. But the story of history is not yet done. Until the moment the last human dies the story is ongoing and there remains hope for the future. Reading about past evils helps us to avoid them in the now and future. I would advise everyone to read the afore-mentioned books for themselves but also, just as importantly, to regain some measure faith in humanity. After all, is there not also some beauty and hope to be found in our history?