Thursday, August 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12a

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

Virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses hidden metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. The metaphors cultures use become so fixed in thought that people  forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact. As George Lakoff puts it, 'Metaphorical concepts . . .  structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. 

We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.' James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, 'We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes: 'Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice . . . '

This makes it important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and they could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human beings. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. To hide this reality, a fairy tale with an asymmetry built into it is sold to the public. The hero (one's own country) is moral and courageous, while the villain (enemy) is amoral and vicious. 

In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:

These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.

Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.

Fraternising between enemy soldiers is quite frequent in war (when they are enlisted men rather than officers.) This has been recorded in the Spanish Civil War, Crimean War, the American Civil War etc. One of most famous of such instances was the Christmas truce during WWII.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, however, when outside events seemed to provide a path to the truce that their leaders had rejected. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Many lower ranking German and British troops exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides laying a good-natured game of soccer. This policy came to be known as “live and let live,” and it would be adopted on an ad hoc basis throughout the war, particularly in less active sectors. It was never repeated — future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action.

Most psychologists used to believe that an army’s fighting power was determined by ideology, love of one’s country, or faith in one’s chosen party. The widely accepted view was that the soldiers who were most thoroughly convinced they stood on the right side of history and that theirs was the legitimate worldview would put up the best fight. During WWII, most experts agreed that this theory explained why the Germans had a desertion rate that approached zero, and why they fought harder than the Americans and the British. 

A psychologist interviewed one German captive after another and found that this explanation was wrong. The real reason why the German army was capable of putting forth an almost superhuman fight was friendship. All those German men who had resisted the Allied advance tooth and nail had taken up arms for one another. They weren’t fighting for a Thousand-Year Riech but because they didn’t want to let down their mates. ‘Nazism begins ten miles behind the front line,’ scoffed one German prisoner, whereas friendship was right there in every bunker and trench.

Later historians discovered that the military commanders were well aware of this thinking of the soldiers and used it to their advantage. Nazi generals went to great lengths to keep comrades together, even withdrawing whole divisions for as long as it took new recruits to form friendships, and only then sent everyone back into the fray. 

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