Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Sometimes we like to show solidarity or support for a good cause, so we dress up in similar clothes, don the same colors, or maybe stick a ribbon pin to our lapel.  For instance, some people wear pink to show their support for breast cancer research or red to demonstrate their support for the fight against heart disease in women.  My wife told me about efforts to establish a Wear Purple Day at her workplace to celebrate the gay and lesbian community, though according to my internet search there is already such a day for an equally good cause, epilepsy.  I think this open-hearted display of support for charities is wonderful and important, and it’s fun too.  However, I’ll never participate.  One exception here would perhaps be the event-sponsored t-shirts I’ve worn for half-marathons, but I feel no pressure or even expectation whatsoever to don the shirt.  Otherwise, I won’t put on the patches, pins, ribbons, armbands, or hats.  I won’t observe the color code.  Why?  It’s not because I’m superior or self-righteous; it’s not because I see myself as set apart from the masses, an enlightened soul far from the madding crowd of conformity.  Still, resistance to conformity, however good-natured and voluntary the conformity, is important to me, more so nowadays than it was in my youth.  Let me explain further before you write me off as a stubborn contrarian.

The word Gleichschaltung resonates with Germans.  It means “coordination” or maybe by extension “conformity”; it has particular association with the Nazi regime’s efforts to get everyone on the same (gleich) page back in the Thirties.  No, I’m not likening Purple Day to Hitler’s totalitarian control of society, but there's an underlying principle here.  My refusal to join in the team-building event is personal.  You see, I teach courses on the Holocaust and other genocides.  I often wonder how I would have acted under these stressful situations but lament the fact that in all probability—given the demographic statistics—I would have fallen in line with the rest.  Usually in the final class session, after having spent weeks discussing the varied behaviors of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, I invite students to ponder this question about their hypothetical reaction to such trials and tribulations, as if they hadn’t already thought about it in the course of the semester.  What would they do if they were, say, Germans living in Nazi Germany or Hutu during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda?  Even if you were not culturally predisposed to at least a mild form of anti-Semitism or if you disagreed with the Führer's excessive response to the humiliation of Versailles, you would still think twice about risking your life, family, reputation or business by disobeying the dictates of the state and trying to help victims of the genocide.  Then again, there were a handful of people—and I do mean handfulwho resisted and sacrificed their lives in the name of humanity and compassion.  We can never know for sure how we'd act, even if we’d of course like to think that we would have conducted ourselves morally and heroically.  I know it’s a stretch, but my resistance to conformity in even little things like Purple Day or Red Day or Whatever Day gives me a tell-tale sign, arguably, that I might not bend the knee to Caesar or Baal when my conscience tells me to stand my moral ground.  But you never know.  As Martin Luther said on his deathbed: Wir sind Pettler.  Hoc est verum.