Resisting Evils of Racism: Zygmunt Bauman’s Holocaust Reflections

I have been reading the excellent book by Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, and he makes very good points relevant to change action today. A common barrier to social change in all societies is the reluctance of most people, including those who know change is ethical and necessary, to take action. Writing insightfully about (photo: cicilief) lessons he takes from the Holocaust, Bauman has sagely noted that “Evil can do its dirty work, hoping that most people most of the time will refrain from doing rash, reckless things – and resisting evil is rash and reckless. Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience – the instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that it is not my turn, thank God: by lying low, I can still escape.” One of the serious obstacles to racial change in the U.S. case is the many good people who know the white racial frame and its racial hierarchy need to be changed but who remain at a distance as bystanders and do not object to even the (photo: gil sousa) most brutal aspects of maintaining of systemic racism.

Still, Bauman underscores the point that even such great evils need not have happened if some people will just act. While most people in Nazi Germany did put their self-preservation above their their high moral duty, this was, and is, not inevitable: “Evil is not all powerful. It can be resisted. The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the authority of the logic of self-preservation. It shows it for what it is in the end – a choice. One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated. Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?”

How many, indeed? What do you think?

I think we need to encourage many more Americans to defy the logic of self-preservation and thus to disrupt racist performances that reinforce the white racist frame. We need to teach whites and others how to call out backstage racist ideas and performances, which habitually generate discrimination in frontstage settings. Even modest interventions are a good start.

Whites especially, and others, can counter racist performances by using humor (“Did you learn that joke from the Klan?”), feigning ignorance (“Can you please explain that racial comment?”), and constantly reframing situations of racial hostility and discrimination by accenting ideas of justice, fair play, and personal responsibility.

What are your experiences with such antiracist interventions with friends, relatives, strangers?


  1. This isn’t a point I’d like to argue against, but I do think it’s typically not stated very well. This is the same sort of logic that leads Tim McVeigh to go from being an average asshole to the worst domestic terrorist in American history. And, while they’re still one of the few segments of the hard left among whom I feel comfortable as a Jew, I’m hardly comfortable with the violent tactics of antifas. Without discussion of what constitutes ‘evil’ (actually, it’s a word I recoil from), the demand to do something, to act becomes an empty cult of actionism that amounts to or recreates the path (from the French Left, remember) to fascism.

  2. Joe Author

    Matt, good points. The definition of social “evil” is certainly difficult, but I do not think we progressives can stand by and neglect grappling with that, no matter how hard it is. We not only have to talk about what social evils are — but what standards like “social justice” “freedom” and “equality” mean, and what it looks like to implement them. Else, how do we judge the oppression, the evil, that is….. and replace it with justice?

  3. Chris

    Last night I was at a concert and a guy in front of me said “that’s so gay” in a clearly derogatory way. When he used the word “queer” as a put down, I said loudly to my husband “that’s the second homophobic comment of the evening.” The guy switched to anti-semitic comments. Sigh.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    Matt, I fully appreciate where you are coming from—believe me. But there is usually the duty to act, question authority, and strive to do what is morally right when it comes to confronting various types of injustices, which is not always possible. And maybe it’s nothing more than a matter of knowing when and how to best conform and resist, to act or remain complacent, etc. Lack of action, how ever small that may be, particularly on behalf of those enduring the injustices, is a sin if you will. Yet, lack of action can actually be the strongest action—here I think about union strikes, etc. Refusal to conform and/or follow can be moral action in and of itself. It all depends on the situation and context. Action does not have to equate to violence, lawsuits, hostility, and negative and/or punitive consequences for the oppressors (they usually get off anyway and the victim gets only double victimized in the process, etc.). And in other ways, need not lead to fascism.

    On a different note, I love pondering on the concept of “evil” because I use it in different contexts. But I think the game of the “evils” (in a serious sense) is always changing, which serves to keep those in most power at the top. Concepts of what is considered “just” are relative….

    But back to acting and action–it is so true, habitual action (or as you put it very nicely, “the empty cult of actionism”) can lead to facism—but I think it is really thoughtless action that poses the biggest risk in walking down the paths of least resistance and most comfort and security he is talking about? Is it not the thoughtful and mindful action humans have a duty to carry out, involving potential risks if necessary, to bring forth justice and combat various evils related to various inequalities and oppressions, he is talking about? (Particularly if we wish for history to not repeat itself?)Very interesting….

  5. I agree about a duty to act. We’re all in agreement here. I just want to add that a duty to be thoughtful ought to be understood together with the duty to act. You know the Talmudic debate on which is better between thought and action? Thought is eventually considered more important, but the reason is that it leads to action.

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