Thoughts on NIGHT

I’m teaching Night, by Elie Wiesel, in my freshman class. So one of the things I taught the kids this week was the definition of dehumanization–essential for understanding the book. Kids were absolutely *silent* as they learned about how Nazis used dehumanization in concentration camps to make victims feel powerless and to allow perpetrators to avoid guilt. Then we read one page of the book, and when I asked kids to identify two examples of dehumanization, 60% of hands went up (shocking in this class). Every kid listened as one of my students explained how referring to Jews as “filthy dogs” was calling them less than human. Another student said “yeah it’s like they matter less if they’re animals.”

This wasn’t a responsive lesson to anything in the news; it was planned as part of teaching this essential text. I don’t mention Trump in class unless students bring up questions. Kids need to learn about the history of the Holocaust because it’s part of our human record. I just didn’t realize that they would need to apply their new vocabulary to understanding the news that same day. It’s heartbreaking, but I can hope that my 9th graders start reading their world and making their own connections.

It’s my third time reading the book, and what stuck with me this time was the ending lines. Elie’s first act after liberation is to look at himself in a mirror…. “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Elie’s gaze at himself, possibly seeing his dead father in himself, and certainly seeing his own journey through “the kingdom of night,” seems to freeze him at that age. This experience will never leave his mind, and no matter how much time passed, somewhere in his heart he was suspended in that state of desperate survival. And I think that visceral feeling of envisioning and facing death in his own body is what enabled his humanitarian impulses and his transcendent passion for peace. In his Nobel Speech, he references his younger self, too. He says that he wrote for the young Jewish boy in the concentration camp, to show him what he has done with the life belonging to that boy. So Elie the character and Wiesel the writer are in service to each other, showing even yet again that life and personhood matters greatly and we must respect it in ourselves and in the world. We are human, and if we see the traumatic human-ness of ourselves, we can see it in others too.


The Absence of Empathy

This post was originally written on April 11, 2017. For the contextual speech by Sean Spicer, then White House Press Secretary, see the L.A. Times Story.

When my students speak “Hitler” with smirks in class, complain about Nazi teachers, or joke about the Holocaust, it’s not because they’re ignorant. They know what happened in Nazi Germany. They didn’t forget. In fact, being in American high school, they’re likely to have had at least one major unit of study on World War II and the Holocaust within the past year or two. They may have more paragraphs of Elie Wiesel’s Night haunting them than most adults.

When my students make these Nazi-referent moves in search of humor or hyperbole, I don’t believe they’re making earnest declarations of their own anti-Semitism. I don’t believe they’re being overtly hateful. They’re embarrassed, not defiant, when they are called out. They have a sense of social sensibilities, and they know “offensive” when they’ve created it.

So why do they still do it?

I am thinking of this question today not because of any event in my classroom, but because of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s asinine and offensive remarks today. His words display the kind of ugliness that make us close our eyes and shake our heads in anger.

“You have someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he says in obvious falsehood. And then, in clarifying, well– Hitler didn’t use them “on his own people.” He didn’t go in the middle of towns and drop them “on innocent people.”

Those modifying words are most telling to me — not “his own people.” Not “innocent people” (which might be better expressed as “random people”). In covering his mistaken separation of genocide and warfare, he goes around in a circle to separate the two histories once more. The acts committed by Hitler and his followers and collaborators, to Spicer’s fast-acting brain, can be distinguished as deliberately targeted against others. And because he has already cast the “Hitler” side of things as the better side, he is now in a position of justifying racial genocide. He didn’t forget. He accessed names that have hyperbolic power, and he misused that power.

This is the problem that I see. Sean Spicer and my misguided high school students know what happened. But they don’t feel it.

It’s because they don’t see literature and stories as “exhuming bodies,” in the words of Viola Davis.  It’s because they lack an awareness of their place in history, of their role, of their privilege. It’s because they see black and white, not shades of gray — much less rain-slaked skies of gray that soak all comers with the aftermath of violence and trauma. It’s because the ugly parts of history are far from the center of their minds, dismissed as past and far and buried.

This is why part of my job is to teach empathy. I don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and I teach literature about people who are different from my students (and in many cases, different from myself.) I don’t want my students to studiously avoid offending anyone. I want them to feel the offense themselves. I want them to know that when they trivialize the Holocaust or other traumatic violent events, they are doing harm. Even if they can’t see anyone in the room who might be hurt, even if the harm isn’t done to “their own people,” their words have power, and power in the absence of empathy is corruption.