As people grow up it’s inevitable that thoughts of personal responsibility and morality will become more frequent (at least, you would hope so.) The choices we face are many and bewildering, with seemingly endless implications. Everyone wants to feel secure and satisfied in their personal narrative – almost no-one wants to believe that they are a bad person.
I keep returning to questions of what this means in practice, especially since Hari-gate last year. In the fall-out from that it became clear that many approached morality as a football match, believing themselves to be ‘the goodies’ and so largely above criticism. Any sense of a deeper consideration of their actions, even of the kind of person they wanted to actually be, was lost beneath the primary importance of how they were perceived to be. Every time I note this it seems trite, yet it was undoubtedly a big eye-opener for me.
These issues occupied my mind again last night after I watched the film ‘Good’. Released in 2008, it shows the inculcation of a literary Professor into the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. As the title suggests, questions of what it means to be ‘good’ dominate the film – the Professor is explicitly told that he is a good man, a good father, a good husband, a good son, at several points during the film. Yet we are left in little doubt that his moral equivocacy (cowardice, even) leads him further and further down the ‘wrong’ path. Initially dismissive of Nazi ideas, he is seduced and flattered by the Party as they seek to exploit his academic status and, most notably, a novel he has written about euthanasia. While privately he remains distant from Nazism, as evidenced by his efforts to aid his Jewish best friend, he nonetheless silently acquiesces to its advance and its use of him. Finally, in in a concentration camp, he realises too late the full horror of what his actions and inactions have contributed to. “It’s real”, he exclaims, in recognition that his choices have had very concrete, very repugnant, repercussions.
While the film is far from perfect, I found its central stylistic tool (presumably surviving from the stage play on which the film is loosely based) to be very effective. In various circumstances over the years the Professor is torn from reality and hallucinates a group of men singing a particular piece of music to him. In the climactic scene at the concentration camp, as the Professor stumbles around increasingly repelled by what he sees, he finds himself facing a group of prisoners playing the same music. Suddenly it becomes clear that each time he has heard the music has been a moment when he has strayed further from moral notions of being ‘good’ – staying silent when he witnesses book burnings, cheating on his troubled wife, allowing the Nazis to turn his book into a propagandising film. In one of the most powerful scenes, he is called upon to partake in a pogrom after (we are told) ‘the Jews’ assassinate a high-ranking Nazi. He takes to the street in full Nazi regalia, trying to keep out of the mania around him, and attempts to find his Jewish friend in order to help him escape. Unable to find him, the Professor makes an impulsive decision to free a Jewish man with the same surname who is about to be taken to the camps. As he does this, the hallucination begins once again. Whereas you might expect such an act to be portrayed as undeniably ‘good’, this film seemed to argue that it was an ineffectual panacea for the Professor’s own troubled conscience, an act which did nothing to halt his path to the concentration camps.
In highlighting how the Professor’s choices led to his complicity in unimaginable horrors, the film concerns itself with the infamous ‘banality of evil’. He is not a wicked man, a fanatic or a bigot. Nonetheless, his ‘reasonableness’ leads to his rationalisation of inaction and passive co-operation with the great evil taking hold around him. In this way the film clearly pushes a message of personal responsibility and personal morality, even while acknowledging how difficult it can be in a society gone mad. It’s unsurprising then that, being released in 2008, the film’s marketing drew parallels with contemporary society and the ‘War on Terror’, describing it as “a film about then, which illuminates the terrors of now.”
Of course, few of us would accept that we are complicit in drone attacks on Pakistan or indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. While Nazism is now almost universally accepted as an undeniable horror, these things seem complex, distant and certainly not present in our daily lives. Furthermore, questions of morality seem impossibly daunting in modern capitalist society. Our phones, laptops and trainers have more often than not been made by people on the other side of the world working in horrible conditions for almost no material benefit, yet we prefer to imagine that they have magically materialised in front of us. Many of our most successful businesses pay poverty wages while avoiding tax, and we tolerate this while our government continues to cut welfare for the most vulnerable in society. Our financial system masks a multitude of horrors, ranging from profiting off the back of arms sales to brutal regimes to profiting from hunger itself. Many find themselves working for morally dubious organisations in order to ‘put food on the table’. Truly it seems impossible to live a truly ‘moral’ life without becoming a hermit.
It is by fortuitous coincidence, then, that I am currently nearing the end of the autobiography of Emma Goldman. She was a tireless activist and towering intellect of the kind few of us could ever hope to emulate. Yet her constant struggle with her principles in the face of society, both Western and Soviet, is an inspiration. In perhaps the most famous quotation from the book, Goldman states:
I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’ Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.
This sounds uncompromising and defiant, yet throughout the book we are privy to Goldman’s inner torment over the compromises and failures which face her in living her life. None loom larger than the betrayal that was the Russian Revolution, yet despite the condemnation of many peers and the damage to her own ego and self-image, Goldman’s principles ultimately led her to reject and condemn the brutal inhumanity of the ‘Communist’ regime. Despite the endless disappointments Goldman held tightly to her passionate belief in humanity and the possibility of a better society; she never lost faith in the power of human agency, whether her own or otherwise.
As I said, few of us can hope to emulate Goldman’s remarkable achievements. Yet in our daily lives we face choices which undoubtedly have wider moral implications. All too often we equivocate, rationalise and take the path of least resistance. All too often we make choices which flatter our egos and our sense of wanting to belong. If we accept, however, that we are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people but are instead the choices that we make in the world, and view ourselves accordingly, the need for guiding principles and ideals becomes paramount. It is these that we try to cling to in our lives, even as we fail and even as we are (inevitably) hypocritical. It’s important to guard against the all-too-easy trap that having these ideals in our heads means that we embody them – our actions, our words, our conduct in our personal relationships – these are where we must make them real. In this way, by clinging onto our sense of what society we want and trying our best to make it real in our own lives (accepting the inevitable failures) morality under capitalism becomes that bit less daunting and we can begin to find our way through very real issues like Guantanamo Bay. That is the only way to be ‘good’ – faltering step after faltering step, with each one doing our best to stay conscience and avoid being corrupted by degrees.