“I just don’t understand how somebody could do that.”
I was sixteen, in San Francisco for the first time, and having my first experience with modern hippies. Or the children of former hippies, at least. We were talking about Nazis, and Hitler, like all sixteen year old girls do when hanging out in the Sunshine State.
“I can,” I said. “You’re miserable. The people you care about are miserable. People you don’t like, or don’t value, or feel threatened by have what looks like happiness, or the means to happiness, so you take it. It makes sense.”
I got answered with an uncomfortable stare. “But that’s evil.”
“So? The part that doesn’t make sense is when they started wholesale killing people. Slaves are so much more useful than corpses. That’s the sort of insanity that made the Nazis a special type of bad guy.”
The conversation about Nazis didn’t last much longer than that.
People love talking about Nazis, though, because just about everybody agrees that they are teh mega evils. I do not disagree. But they are not inexplicable. To claim they are you have to make assumptions about the basic decency, inherent compassion, and inner nobility of humans that just aren’t true and shouldn’t last past about the time you quit believing in Satan Claus. People aren’t inherently nasty and brutish, either – if we were, nasty brutality wouldn’t bother us so much. People are people, and that means they have things about which they care and things about which they don’t, and they are particularly pliable and prone to self-justification when those things interact.
That was the first time I can remember being startled by somebody not being able to wrap their head around somebody else having a different fundamental moral premise for a situation. “Maybe it’s because I like writing villains,” I thought. But then again, why do I like writing villains? “Maybe it’s because she likes the people where she’s grown up.” That probably had something to do with it. “Maybe this is just one of those things where I grew up faster than my peers.” I’ve been getting told I have the soul of a bitter old woman since I was four. That was probably it.
Except I’m older now, and so is everybody I spend my time with, and I still hear it all the time.
“Why don’t those people understand that they’re working against their own interests.”
“Somebody who could say or think that is dangerously insane.”
“Those people are evil.”
And always, a little proud, capped off, “I don’t understand it.”
You know what? That’s okay when you’re sixteen. It’s forgivable when you’re twenty. After that, grow the fuck up. You are not special because you can’t understand people who don’t think like you. Not getting it doesn’t make you better than them. Even if when you label them evil, insane, or stupid, there is no virtue in being baffled. They understand where they’re coming from, and your confusion doesn’t bother them one whit. If they really are dangerous and threatening, your confusion helps them, because it means they can surprise you. When you declare that you don’t understand and expect a pat on that back, what you’ve done is say, “I’m a moron and deserve what I get.”
When you don’t bother to understand them, it means you don’t see the difference between the “freedom fighters” who want to reclaim their homeland and will stop being a problem once they do, and the imperialists who want to have everything. It means you appease when you should resist, or resist when you should compromise. It means you have no baseline, no strategy, just a bunch of insipid emotional flailing that gets us nowhere.
“Those people.” They’re people. Deal.