By Doris Lessing; Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers; @1987; 78 pages.
This book addresses one of my primary questions about human history and human behavior. How is our species capable of doing the horrible things that it has—and is? Why do we do it? Can we stop?
A few months ago I watched somewhat recently discovered film footage (A Film Unfinished) which documented the living conditions of the Jews in the Warsaw slums during World War II.
Horrified does not begin to approach my reaction. I have seen photos before, but the film footage and the fact that it was filmed, and staged, and shot over and over, was so callously heartless, I guess, I had not conceived of this possibility before.
What horrible evil. How could anyone participate in such a thing?
We know that this kind of behavior is not limited to World War II or to the Germans. It can be found in many societies and at many times in human history, and undoubtedly some iteration of it is happening right now.
Lessing, thankfully, does not go into graphic detail, but does give us anecdotes and references some psychological experiments, including the famous Milgram experiment, in which it takes shockingly little to convince people to torture others and excuse themselves by saying they were just following orders.
Lessing maintains that humans (any of us), because of our psychology, are highly susceptible to acting in horrible ways in certain situations and can be influenced easily in groups. It is very rare for any of us to go against (disagree with, challenge) our groups.
She asks how is it that we have this information about ourselves but have not yet incorporated it into our institutions of government so that we don’t repeat these kinds of horrible actions? If we can just admit that we are wired in certain ways, we can put safety measures in place to stop ourselves.
This is a great book and an easy short read. I highly recommend it.
Doris Lessing is a prolific author and is most famous for her novel The Golden Notebook. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.