Fridays with Fred: On Being Woke
As I write this post it is two weeks since the murder of George Floyd. But it is very possible that you are reading it months, even years, after that event. Presently, around the world, and particularly in England and America, statues of many who were previously deemed heroes have become villains—symbols of historical oppression and systemic racism. Over the last few years in my own country we have witnessed woke movements and protests defacing everything from statues to neo-colonialist shops and brands.
Of course, the unfortunate long term effect of myopia is blindness. The thunderous upheaval that ensued Floyd’s death drowned out every other voice from history. For example, the fact that Winston Churchill held off Hitler, so that America could wake up, was ignored amid angry invocations against him. Churchill wasn’t woke. He was a racist. But how should we think about actions in the past and human history in general? How should we evaluate the morality of previous generations? And what should we do about them in the present? In his Aphorisms on Love and Hate, Friedrich Nietzsche offers three interesting, not to mention contentious, suggestions in answer to these questions.
1. “Judge Not, That You Be Not Judged”
Firstly, with a delightful dose of irony, Nietzsche quotes Jesus: “Judge not.” He then continues, “When we consider earlier periods, we must be careful not to fall into unjust abuse. The injustice of slavery, the cruelty in subjugating persons and peoples, cannot be measured by our standards. For the standard for justice was not so widely developed then…it is just that the views dominant then were wrong and resulted in a consistency that we find harsh, because we now find those views so alien.” This quote can almost stand alone, without further comment. Put simply, Nietzsche is warning against the age old temptation to use either our own personal standards or contemporary culture - or both - as the yardstick for morality throughout history.
Nietzsche goes on to suggest two problems with such an overinflated view of ourselves and the present: we are inconsistent and our forebears were ignorant. On our ignorant predecessors, Nietzsche writes, “Cruelty to animals, by children and Italians, stems from ignorance.” Putting his intolerance of Italians aside, the point stands. Children are always growing and learning. We might say that so too is humanity. The application of this warning is that it is incredibly hard for us to be anything other than a creature of our culture and time. This is the reason precious few individuals stand out in history. Perhaps we should be slower to envision histories when we would have been the heroic liberators. After all, it’s highly probable you wouldn’t have even murmured dissent, let alone raised your hand.
Nietzsche’s other warning against making our cultural moment the yardstick of morality is that it reveals our inconsistent double-standards in the present—funnily enough, this was Jesus’ point in Matthew 7:7. As Nietzsche notes, “In our own time, we treat political heretics harshly and cruelly, but because we have learned to believe in the necessity of the state we are not as sensitive to this cruelty as we are to that cruelty whose justifications we reject.” Let me paraphrase. We are not as sensitive to our own cruelty when we feel it is justified, as some kind of self-righteous rage and virtuous indignation. When it is woke. But these feelings, however strong and valid, do not excuse violence and hatred—as if bearing the names of past victims mitigates present wrongs.
2. People Follow Orders, Others Give Them
Nietzsche’s second point to help us think about morality and human history is just as uncomfortable as the first. He writes, “In history much that is frightful and inhuman, which one would almost not like to believe, is mitigated by the observation that the commander and the executor are different people: the former does not witness his cruelty and therefore has no strong impression of it in his imagination; the latter is obeying a superior and feels no responsibility. Because of a lack of imagination, most princes and military leaders can easily appear to be harsh and cruel, without being so.” While I am not an advocate for situational ethics, Nietzsche’s point is worth consideration.
As he notes, in much that is “frightful and inhuman…the commander and the executor are different people.” This point could be simply refuted: both should have known better. But we must not forget that perpetrators of historical injustices were—as we saw above—ignorant. That observation compounds this one. Of course, neither of these factors are absolutely mitigating. They do not excuse evil. The “executor” should feel the weight of responsibility, owing to his agency. And despite their distance from the actual events, the “commander” is never absolutely unaware of what is being carried out.
Yet in each case there is room for a slightly more generous assessment than what is typical today. Do you really think that given power over others, the ability to order actions without seeing the consequences, you would have closely moderated its execution? Alternatively, under the frightful power of some prince or military leader, can you honestly say you would have been a conscientious objector? Again, history presents us with very few cases of either.
Perhaps the soldier silenced his troubled conscience by repeatedly telling himself he bore no responsibility. Likewise, from afar the commander looked on his unsullied hands. In both cases, we might also have persuaded ourselves we’re not responsible. We would be wrong. But let’s be more honest with ourselves—and generous to those who went before us.
3. Set Your Woke Soul In Order Before You Criticise Human History
This third point does not follow those given above, coming elsewhere in Aphorisms on Love and Hate. But it fits well. Nietzsche writes, “Good nature, friendliness, and courtesy of the heart are ever-flowing tributaries of the selfless drive and have made much greater contributions to culture than those much more famous expressions of this drive, called pity, charity.” Nietzsche fits this broadly under the heading, “goodwill,” which he describes as, “the continual manifestation of our humanity, its rays of light, so to speak, in which everything grows.” Goodwill. Courtesy. Friendliness. In light of Nietzsche’s overall mood and predictable meanness, this exhortation is somewhat strange—if not a little hollow. But this only makes it more pointed in our application of it.
Human history is dark. And we don’t even know the half of it. It contains innumerable injustices and terrible evils. As we seek to address these in the present and aim to undo the grave harms many people have inherited because of them, we should—we must—avoid becoming embroiled in bitterness and hatred. Self-righteous indignation and virtuous rage cannot rewrite human history. Nor will it create a future without those things. The pendulum will simply swing. Instead, as Nietzsche suggests, goodwill, friendliness, love and generosity can make a significant contribution to culture and our communities right now, not to mention the future.