Forget this “When good men do nothing…”

Reading books can give a distorted idea of what evil is, and what it means to be a good person. And especially when we start using falsely attributed quotes that are both misleading and wrong, we need to reconsider what it actually means – to do good.

The power of a good story

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of good books, with stories that stay with me, hopefully forever. But I have always read a lot of books. As a child, I would go to the library every week and find a new set of books – 6 as that was the maximum. Carefully selected of course, as it would have to last me a week. And although I liked almost all types of books (except YA-chick-lit and morally repulsive books of Carry Slee whose ‘high-school setting’ I simply despised), there was one type I read most of all. Books that played during the second world war. Children fighting against the Germans who had occupied the Netherlands, helping the resistance, hiding people, or simply trying to survive on a farm and being confronted by an English pilot that had crashed and needed to find his way back home.

Some of these stories have recently been made into movies. For instance “Winter in Wartime” (2008) based on the book by Jan Terlouw (‘Oorlogswinter’, (1972) for the Dutch readers). Maybe not a coincidence that I could not get enough of his books, as I know now Terlouw is a very intelligent and insightful journalist as well. But having read all these stories as I was young, my view on what it means to be good, and what it means to resist oppression is, to say the least, very skewed.

Good and Evil

What these stories often make you believe, is that there is something that is good, and something that is evil. And that we have a choice, of course, to decide which ‘team’ we’re on. More sophisticated stories like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars – which are perhaps the most classic good vs evil stories in the Western world – do take into consideration that things are a bit more complicated. The hero’s father is actually the evil person, and the hero realizes that he himself is not completely good either.

This trying to differentiate between things, leads to a thinking in which some things like emotions are sources of evil, whereas other things, like friendship and rationality are good. But these stories never make us think as to how we can recognize what is good, and what is evil.

When we don’t learn how to recognize these things, then how do we know we’re not just repeating the behavior of the categories of thought that we’ve been taught to use. Categories like: nazi is bad, hero is good. Like bully is bad, giving a hug is good. But this poses a problem – because how can we judge new situations that we have never dealt with before? It makes that with some situations we don’t know what to do – should be hit an evil person? Should we hug a bully?

Good men doing nothing…

Yesterday was the Holocaust Memorial Day, and having lived in Israel, having grown up in post-war Europe, the Shoah has always been a very important aspect of the way I look at life and the world. I’ve been influenced by thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas who tried to make sense of existentialism in a post-WWII world. And I’m touched by ways people try to say “We Remember” in this media campaign by the World Jewish Congress. But I’m also saddened that we still haven’t found a solution to the very problems of our time, to recognize wrongs and to stand up to them in an effective manner.

And most of all I’m upset by the claim that the Holocaust came about because good people remained silent, when it is good people who do nothing. First of all, this shows that we have a very strange concept of what makes someone a good person. The goodness of someone is not in his genes, his education or his gender. Not in his religion, not in his use of language, not in his color of skin. Goodness is defined through deeds. So a good person who stays silent – this could be the case, when silence is necessary and a good thing. But when it is said in relation to the Holocaust, silence is definitely not a good thing, so the person who stays silent is not a good person. Period.

Secondly, this is problematic because it pretends that through non-deeds something horrible has happened. To not stop something is a different kind of responsibility from actually doing something. both are responsible, both should be held accountable for their deeds and choices, but to say something horrible happened because of the people who did not act, seems to forget a whole group of people who did. As Primo Levi said:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Notice how common men act, not how common men keep silent.

Third problem with this idea, is that it presumes that the problem is when people do not speak. But speech itself is not the change. At most it can set in motion change. But the real change comes when we stop thinking a certain way, when we don’t accept the categories that are forced upon us, the common men. And when speech is a testimony of this new understanding, it is no longer simply a not-being-silent, but speech has become an act, an act that cannot take place by itself, but needs to be accompanied by physical acts alongside it. But this quote makes us believe that when we say something, blurt out something on social media, or have an opinion about it, that we have stopped being silent. This is insane. Social media has become one of the best methods to keep people from acting on their beliefs, while still making them think they have contributed. 

Forget that quote

This quote of good men being the cause of evil because they stay silent, can be found online attributed to the philosopher Edmund Burke and sometimes even to Einstein, but both men never said it. The source might be John Stuart Mill. For more information, see Wikipedia. Einstein actually said this, and I agree with it:

“The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

So maybe let’s forget this quote of unknown origin and all the related memes of good men and silence and them being solely responsible for evil.

This is one such instance where a false attribute is used, for a quote that is misleading and upsetting.
This is one such instance where a false attribute is used, for a quote that is misleading and upsetting.

This is why I remember – and why I read

Let us talk more about what good deeds are, what it means to do something that matters. Let’s stop pretending that by default I myself am the good person. Because history clearly shows most people are not. Fortunately, everyone can make a choice, every moment again. Scarily enough, this is just as true for people who have never had to even consider doing something against their idea of what is good.

This is why I remember. This is why I continue to read books like “This is a man” by Primo Levi, and “Night” by Elie Wiesel. Because it’s good to not only remember, but to think about ourselves and about what makes us human. And how when we forget to ask that question, when we pretend to already know and to never be anything than good, we end up saying, in the words of Wiesel: “I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it . . .”

Author: Nobyeni

Freelance Philosopher (PhD). Writer. Thinker. Interested in radical change and human being. Playwright. Dutch World citizen. Lover of books, language, art and coffee.

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