THE WAR ON TRUTH
On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
Words are sacred. They impart truth, express love, define justice. They enable us to share feelings and humour. They allow us to transcend ourselves in the search for meaning and the act of worship. All this means they are uniquely vulnerable to assault from those who would extinguish life.
Genocide begins with the abuse of language. From Der Sturmer to Hutu radio broadcasts, propaganda has dehumanised the ethnic group targeted for murder, creating the conditions in which some people are no longer seen as fellow human beings, worthy of dignity and love, but as insects to be crushed.
It shows the power of words, that human behaviour can be so shaped and conditioned by those who control the media. The trouble is, no-one has to control the media anymore to do the damage. They merely need access to a smartphone or a laptop and needn’t even get out of bed to do the business of hatred.War itself has evolved. It might once have begun with words and ended with bullets. Now it seems that war itself can be fought online. The Internet Research Agency at St Petersburg – so blandly titled – is pumping out lies to undermine the morale and unity of western nations. There is no certain way of telling what is true and what is false among the vast amount of stuff posted online. And some of it is racist and specifically antisemitic.
We are waking up to this war of words. And in rousing ourselves from slumber, we should find some priorities. The first is to be kind to language, as Yale professor Tim Synder has observed in his book On Tyranny. Exaggerating is funny in stand-up comedy but it is now routinely used to make points or win arguments. More precision is called for. When our conversation becomes more measured, real hatred loses its camouflage. We are able to call it out and name it with greater assurance.
So we need to use language accurately. Six million Jewish people were not killed in the Holocaust. You are killed in a road traffic accident. You were murdered at Auschwitz. These kinds of smokescreens are intentionally raised by those who want to do violence to history so that in its weakened state it can be repeated.
The second need is not to grow lethargic in confronting lies. One of the goals of online propaganda is to confuse and demoralise people so they become passive and biddable. Victor Klemperer spent a lot of time thinking about the population of Nazi Germany and its submission to evil. He said that truth dies when lies are presented as facts and phrases are repeated endlessly until they become believable. I wish we were talking about the past, but all around us in today’s world, we see evidence of this kind of shameless manipulation.
We will soon enough reach a point where the last remaining survivors of the holocaust, bearing personal testimony, will leave this life. Those who spread Holocaust denial will think this presents them with a new opportunity to re-write history. It is up to the rest of us to ensure they are themselves denied. Thank God for the remarkable efforts that have been made to create a written history of survivors’ experiences in recent years. But that itself is not enough.
Hannah Arendt, historian of last century’s totalitarianism, said that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. She said this a long time before the internet made that kind of passivity a trend. More recently, Samantha Power, former aide to President Obama, said the world is full of bystanders when it comes to violence against groups, and that we need what she termed upstanders instead. People who will confront it.
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