For years I worked out three times a week at the University of Alberta gym. My workout partner was a history professor who specialized in Eastern Europe and had done extensive research on the Holocaust in Ukraine.
While we were working out, we talked about everything under the sun. Once a woman who was working out on weights came over and said to us, “I just have to tell you how much I admire how you can chat away while you’re working out.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a real compliment; our chatting was probably interfering with her concentration and driving her nuts.
Once, while I was lifting a particularly heavy weight, the professor told me to imagine someone dressed in protective clothing slaughtering a cage full of chickens with a machete. I would be horrified at the carnage, right? But if I learned that the chickens carried a deadly virus that could infect thousands and lead to agonizing deaths, the slaughter of the chickens would seem considerably less horrifying and even a very good thing. His point was that discourse matters and affects our perception.
In Nazi propaganda, Jews were depicted as menacing, an entirely alien race, parasites on the German nation that poisoned its culture, and manipulated its economy. Of course, the Nazis drew on traditional Christian stereotypes too, but they especially emphasized the danger that Jews posed to Germans. Discourse mattered.
But I wondered. After all, despite the discourse about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and the meek inheriting the Earth in the New Testament, Christians had been pretty brutal throughout history with their torture racks, stakes for burning heretics and other delights of the Inquisition. The Jewish scriptures, on the other hand, are full of rape, pillage, and genocidal commandments of the “kill everything that breathes” variety, but historically Jews have been far less prone than Christians to torturing and killing people.
But those more violent Jewish scriptures are also part of the Christian Bible—the Old Testament. Also Christians had—many still have–the doctrine of eternal hell fire. What are a few hours of torture for a heretic if it saves her soul from eternal damnation? But mainly, Christians wielded state power; Jews never did. Violence seems to be more a question of power than of discourse
We might think we’re fortunate that a secular humanist discourse dominates in our society and that the balance of power has diminished the influence of religious fanatics. But, alas, it hasn’t diminished the influence of secular fanatics, and there is plenty of state violence to take up the slack in religiously motivated violence.
In much of the Muslim world religious fanatics still wield inordinate power with lamentable results, witness the rise of the Islamic State. In Israel, where Jews do wield state power, ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank happily draw on the darker parts of the Jewish scriptures to justify violence against Palestinians. So discourse does matter, but only when the balance of power is right. Maybe it’s simply the case that as a species we periodically slaughter each other and will always find reasons.
I miss those workouts.