The Use and Abuse of Blindness (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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Motivations for Blindness: First Case

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. [. . .]

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). [. . .] You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame.”

—Milton Mayer, quoting one of his sources 


Well into They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945, his 1955 book addressing the all too motivated blindness of ordinary Germans to the reality of Nazism, Milton Mayer recounts a long conversation he had with a German colleague, a philologist what lived through the Nazi period. The quotation above is from Mayer’s account of that conversation (new edition, University of Chicago Press, 2017, pages 170-172). It presents a model example of how a transfiguring moment can occur in the midst of the most everyday surroundings, a moment that suddenly casts a new light not on anything in particular, but on everything at once, revealing in a flash what up till then has been there all along, but to which one had remained blind. In the case described, what is above all revealed is such blindness itself as self-induced and selfishly motivated—a blindness the only fully appropriate response to which is shame.

A few pages later Mayer adds that, upon subsequent reflection on that and some of the other conversations he had with Germans who turned a blind eye to the reality of the Nazi State in which they lived during the Hitler years, “it occurred to me that the concept of collective guilt* is at bottom a semantic failure. What is really involved is collective shame.”

Mayer immediately adds in his very next sentence that such “collective shame” is something that “may be possible” under the right circumstances—a question he leaves without further exploration—“but it cannot be compelled.” Mayer then explains that while shame is “a state of being,” guilt is “a juridical fact.” He then give an example that is even more appropriate to his own country, the United States of America, than it is to Germany’s “Third Reich”: “A passer-by cannot be guilty of failure to try to prevent a lynching. He can only be ashamed of not having done so.”

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Not only can such a passer-by feel ashamed. He should feel ashamed. His passing-by such injustice is in truth shameful.

Feelings of shame are not pleasant. No one enjoys them. The temptation is strong to try to avoid feeling shame for what one has done or failed to do by covering oneself, hiding one’s shameful act or failure to act. Indeed, the very word shame is thought to have possibly derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *skem, from *kem, “to cover.” Our natural reaction to shame is just that: to try to cover it over, hiding our shame—from others, but first and most of all from ourselves. We vanish back into the darkness of denial, redoubling our blindness by blinding ourselves even to our own shameful blindness. 

If we yield to that temptation, denying our shameful acts or failures to act, we perpetuate the very blindness that shames us in the first place. Thus does our very shame itself provide us with a motive for continuing our blindness before the shameful reality of who we are, at the level of what we have actually done or failed to do. And thus do we compound our shame. 

Only the exceptional among us, those who should lead the rest of us, fight the temptation to react to shame with denial, and instead respond by showing the “heroism” Mayer’s philologist friend speaks of at the end of the quotation with which this post begins. Instead of denying their shame, they open to it, accepting the gift of it and cherishing that gift as a good one—eucharist in the original sense of that word’s Greek roots. 

As Mayer's friend went on to say a bit later in their long conversation (on page 175 of the latter’s book, slightly edited for the sake of inclusive language), “when those who understand what is happening—the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single events or developments—when such individuals do not object or protest, those who do not understand cannot be expected to.” He thereby tells us the truth that those who have truly accepted the gift of the revelation to them of their own shameful blindness can preserve the goodness of that gift only by using what they have been given to share the insight granted them with others whenever possible, and whomever those others may be. 

If those to whom the truth has been revealed to not share it with everyone else, so far as opportunity presents itself, what had been such a good gift (a “eucharist”), turns into an exceedingly bad one, a real talent for evil.

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How is the gift of shame for one’s selfishly motivated blindness to be shared, so that it remains a good gift and does not become corrupted into an evil one? Mayer’s philologist friend also offers us guidance on that matter. It is not, he says, by marshalling one’s resources and saving one’s strength so that one can be sure one can do something in the future, when worse, more egregious excesses—such as the mass executions of Jews that did not begin until well into the Nazi regime—occur. Rather, it is by saying “No” to even the smallest, most everyday violations of justice and decency perpetrated in the name of coercive power. “It is so much easier to ‘oppose the excesses,’ about which one can, of course, do nothing," laments Mayer's friend in the face of his own shameful silence, "than it is to oppose the whole spirit, about which one can do something every day.” 

Mayer’s friend uses his own story as an example. 

In 1935, while employed in a German defense plant, as a condition of continued employment that friend was required to take an oath of fidelity to the Nazi State. Initially, he refused. Given twenty-four hours to think it over, he used the familiar logic of the “lesser evil” to convince himself that it was not only in his own self-interest, but also in the interests of those whom he could later help, to “compromise” about such a minor thing as the oath. So, embracing that supposedly “lesser” evil he went ahead and signed the oath.

After that, he in fact did go on to help many people, often in courageous ways. However, in his later, final assessment, he grows ashamed of all such compromise. By his earlier reasoning, for which he now feels shame, he had convinced himself that “taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later would have been.” However, he has now come to see that “the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil a fact. 

Then, after making a few other observations, he ends the conversation by saying “if my faith had been strong enough in 1935 [when he was told to sign the oath or lose his job], I could have prevented the whole evil.” “Your faith?” Mayer asks. The friend responds: “My faith. I did not believe I could ‘remove mountains.’ The day I said ‘No,’ I had faith. In the process of ‘thinking it over,’ in the next twenty-four hours my faith failed me. So, in the next ten years, I was able to remove only anthills, not mountains.”

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The old wisdom continues to hold: One does not make deals with the devil. To do so in hopes of thereby gaining opportunity to do greater good later, is to blind oneself to the truth. 

Then, if the moment eventually comes that one sees what one has done, the only heroic response is to be ashamed--and to hold onto that shame.

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To be continued.


*The concept of "collective guilt" was one that the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers, who was married to a Jewish wife but managed to retire from his university position and survive with her in Heidelberg until the end of World War II, did the most to develop and popularize in his 1947 book Die Schuldfrage, translated into English as The Question of German Guilt (Doubleday, 1948).