The good guys vs the bad guys reflections

As I am waiting for last minute administrative signatures for a grant due tomorrow, an email arrived to my mailbox that caused a reflection I am willing to share.

The book title is Judge Thy Neighbor: Denunciations in the Spanish Inquisition, Romanov Russia, and Nazi Germany by Patrick Bergemann. I do not know if it is any good, the book apparently cited Damon Centola, whose research I follow, hence google scholar notified me of it.

The title caught my attention. Many reasons, really. Mainly, it resonates with the argument I have been having with myself around the nature of humankind, and the role of moral education and underlying values we can teach in schools to prevent the damage that we, humans are capable of.

In some period of my previous life, before academia, I used to take international students on trips to Central and Eastern Europe. Prior to the trip, we’d lecture them on history (you’d be surprised how little an average Brazilian or Japanese teenager knew about WW2 and thereafter, things that a European has ingrained in their psyche, at least in my generation). We’d also show them movies, such as The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin, Schindler’s list, before they would go the where the Reichstag used to be, or the Stazi, or to help them make sense of our trip to Auschwitz. My partner who read a lot of the journals and biographies from the period, would talk to them about the banality of evil. Through documentaries, movies, and literature (including some social psych studies that are now considered flawed), I designed role plays on discrimination to show them how anyone is capable of it. That (and some seven trips to Auschwitz that I can not take out of this story) shaped my thinking about how easy it is for the humans to go to the other side. How the other side is based on ideologies, not human principles and values, and how ‘this’ can happen to anyone, and any one of us can be ‘the bad guy’.

I remember having a long discussion with a wonderful academic colleague about this, long into the night, we argued about the nature of humankind. I think then we parted still thinking differently. Recently, I however, have been convincing myself that there is a need to view humankind as inherently ‘good’.

Christakis’ new book on the subject warmed my heart – again, I follow his work mainly because of the academic research I do, but the underlying message of the new book resonated with me. Because, I guess, I would like to be convinced of it. I am still to read it. So then, this other book on the theory of denunciation, I am afraid sheds more light on the other side of the argument, and probably needs to be read before, just to keep it fair.

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