Living With Injustice: Lessons from 1963

| September 2013
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Photo credit: Library of Congress

1963: it was a remarkable year in political philosophy, and in the violence and injustice that often begets it. Philosophy has no shortages of anniversaries, but some are more important than others. The most important, we argue, are those that remind us of what philosophy can be, how it can respond to and articulate the pressing social issues of the day, how it can speak to a public that would rather ignore them. This amounts to saying that some of the most important anniversaries in philosophy are also some of the most disturbing. Such is the case with 1963.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the writing of three seminal texts in twentieth century philosophy. Like most great moments in philosophy, they were not regarded as great moments of philosophy at the time. They weren’t even regarded as philosophy. The first was a letter, a little short of 7000 words, written by Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Birmingham jail where he had been placed after his arrest for protesting racial segregation. The second started as a New Yorker article on the war crimes trial of a Nazi, an article that eventually became Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. In this text, Arendt, like King, reminds us how immoral systems are often sustained in normal, everyday ways by the many who support them. In the same year that Arendt published Eichmann, the twentieth century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas presented his Talmudic reading, “Toward the Other,” which dealt with the general theme of atonement after atrocity. Read together, these pieces show us something rather disturbing about morality and the law, namely that they often do not go hand in hand. And when they do not, strange and horrible things tend to happen in our moral universe.

First, as King’s letter shows us, those who pursue justice often wind up in jail—or worse—wind up dead. “We know through painful experience,” he tells us, “that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” This is often a painful experience indeed. The demands of the oppressed are usually silenced (or muffled, beaten down, expunged, redacted, undermined, excised, twisted, and drowned out) in the name of order, or in the case of King’s imprisonment in Birmingham, in the name of the law. In liberal democracies like ours, the laws were originally meant to protect the majority of citizens from a powerful aristocratic minority. At least that is the story Americans like to tell about inalienable rights. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this prioritization of the majority, but King understood first-hand that groups of individuals could be systematically excluded from the laws’ protective reach.

Indeed, some laws were (and still are) explicitly geared to alienate individuals from their so-called inalienable rights. Written in the face of the Jim Crow Laws, King’s “Letter” takes on the difficult question of what to do when legality is decoupled from the standards of justice. He writes of segregation:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King and Augustine may be right, but until unjust laws are overturned, they still have the power to threaten, incarcerate, torture and kill―and do so every day. Fifty years later, it is tempting to think that our culture has successfully overturned the sort of unjust laws that concern King. But we should resist this temptation. It is one that faces every well-ordered society and giving into it allows well-ordered societies to go morally awry, sometimes horribly so.

Being well-ordered is not the same as being just. That is one of the many lessons that we can glean from twentieth-century fascism. Fascism comes from the Latin word fascis, or a bound bundle of wooden rods tied around a two faced axe. In ancient Rome—and in Nazi Germany—it was meant to symbolize strength in the unity of its followers. But this was no mere symbol in ancient Rome. It had a very practical use. The fasces were used by court officials to exact corporeal and capital punishment. A single rod would break easily, but a bunch of rods acting together could do real damage. That was the thinking of the leaders of the Third Reich. The military and civilian mobilization of the Nazis had to be complete, tight, and unwavering—only then, in the words of Arendt, could the “will of the Führer [be] the law of the land.”

Which brings us to a little ‘rod’ in the Führer’s fascis―Adolf Eichmann, the person for whom Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil.” Was Arendt making light of the evil act unleashed by the Nazis? No. Arendt was drawing our attention not merely to a heinous act, but rather to the ordinary person who enabled it. A person such as Eichmann—who never shot a single Jew—was nonetheless responsible for the efficient machinery that murdered millions of people.

In the footage of the Eichmann trial we see the prosecutor pose a question to Eichmann that Arendt also considers. “Did you follow merely orders or are you responsible?” In other words: are you a trained monkey or the mass murderer of millions? Part of the problem with this question is that it understates what is involved, morally speaking, in “following orders.” At the end of her 1964 essay written in response to the controversy Eichmann provoked, Arendt draws a distinction between obedience and support, recognizing that fine semantic distinctions reveal much about how we think. Obedience, she says, applies more aptly to slaves and children. But for the cog in the bureaucratic machinery, “support” is a more apt description. Unlike the child or the slave, the cogs “obey” because they support the regime. And Arendt simply refuses the possibility that a grown adult couldn’t do otherwise. If they obey it’s because they support, and thus the root cause is not obedience but the support of a regime that was inherently immoral and was allowed to continue because of the lack of protest.

Arendt calls to her readers’ attention the role of personal responsibility that Eichmann attempted to shun. And she ends with this comment: “The question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders should never be ‘Why did you obey?’ but ‘Why did you support?’” When we think about Arendt’s book and her response to the controversy that it provoked, it is difficult not to consider the ways in which we all support the immorality and injustice that surrounds us—including what may seem like the most banal of injustices As Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested, such considerations are often unpleasant, but are required by the strictures of justice.

At the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes a conversation that would take place between Justice and Eichmann, a conversation that says: We must expel you from the moral community: you, who for no good reason, supported a regime that declared certain groups of people no longer worthy to live on this earth, are not a criminal like any other. And precisely because you are not a criminal like any other, you can neither be rehabilitated nor can you be forgiven.

It is a shocking conversation, and one that comes to the jarring conclusion that Eichmann must be executed. For those of us troubled by state sponsored execution, her conclusion is at once satisfying and repelling. What then do we do with these war criminals, including the ones who never so much as fired a gun? And what do we do with those who stood idly by and, in Arendt’s words, supported an immoral regime even if they never had to obey a single order?

In his Talmudic commentary on forgiveness, Levinas assures us that there are no easy answers to Arendt’s question. He recalls that King David reluctantly obliges the Gibeonites’ demand for the blood of Saul’s descendents as retribution for the injustice Saul did to them (Saul’s actions toward another tribe almost wiped them out). So Saul’s descendants are nailed to rocks. But Levinas draws his readers’ attention to Rizpah, the mother of one of the unfortunate sons, who watches over all the corpses, protecting them from the wild animals.

Caught between the impossibility of justice and the impossibility of forgiveness, Levinas recalls Rizpah who, day after day, night after night, watches over the corpses, including those who are not her own sons. What remains after so much blood and tears shed in the name of immortal principles? The individual sacrifice of a woman motivated by a generosity that straddles the justice that was demanded and a forgiveness that was refused.

The only wrong the Talmud recounts is Saul’s attempt to exterminate the Gibeonites. Applying this point to the question of German guilt, which was part of the colloquium theme in 1963 that produced “Toward the Other,” Levinas repeats the midrash that affirms that “the crime of extermination begins before the murders take place, that oppression and economic uprooting already indicate its beginnings, that the laws of Nuremburg already contain the seeds of the horrors of the extermination camps and the ‘final solution’.” Today, this is a warning to all countries, peaceful and warring alike.

The Occupation, Levinas notes, taught this important lesson: “There are people whose hearts do not open before their neighbor runs a mortal risk, just as there are people whose generosity turns away from men fallen to the level of hunted animals.” Indeed, in responding to the Eichmann controversy, Arendt also notes that most disturbing was not the “monster” one expected to do evil but the friend who did nothing in the face of it.

Relationships are often damaged such that forgiveness is impossible, and the negative effects of both justice and injustice reverberate through future generations—even if we are not the ones who demand the blood. These three texts of 1963, still relevant today, ask us to consider the role of both justice and injustice in the continuing bloodshed we live with. They ask us to consider what it means to support evil—not only the obvious evil we see in nations far away but also that which happens closest to us.

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