When I was on holiday recently, I was in a clothing store shopping for some cheapish t shirts for my daughter. I picked out a couple and took them to wait in the everlasting queue for the checkout.
As I was standing there, I stood and looked at the things I was about to buy. Three t shirts, all with cutesy things written on them like: “Show Off”, “Saw It, Wanted It, Threw a Fit, Got It” and then the last one “To Be or Not To Be”. I liked the literary reference on the last one; if I’m going to be buying cheap t-shirts with dodgy stuff written on them, I thought, at least I have one with a Shakespearian reference on it.
As I stood there longer, the meaning of the phrase suddenly refreshed itself in my mind. In the play Hamlet, when Hamlet says the often quoted line, he is contemplating whether or not he should commit suicide. In the play reference, “To Be or Not to Be” means “To Live or Not to Live”. The fact that I hadn’t noticed this slightly macabre reference on the front of the t shirt that my child was going to be wearing irked me a little. What irked me more was that fact that the t shirt had even got made in the first place. As I was standing in the queue, I contemplated the distance that phrases have to go in order to come from “Shall I Kill Myself or Not” to an almost meaningless dictum on letting people be what they are. In this sense, “To Be or Not to Be” has become another form of “Live and Let Live”, which makes far more sense on a t-shirt.
Even though I had thought about all of this as I was waiting, I still bought the t shirt. In the end, the “To Be or Not to Be” t shirt is, despite its origins, the best of the three. “Show Off” is admitting that it’s alright for children to try and upstage each other; “Saw It, Wanted It, Threw a Fit, Got It” is a proclamation of war against tight-fisted parents. The “To Be…” t shirt isn’t about making my daughter into a good little Western capitalist and so it will probably stay until she grows out of it. I’ll try and ‘lose’ the others as soon as possible.
The t shirt got me thinking, however, about how the meanings of phrases and sayings change over time. This isn’t a new area for writing, I know, but I think that the misuse of particular phrases and quotes are extremely relevant right now.
At the beginning of the post-modern era, the Nazis were using a lot of different ideas and quotes from legitimate philosophers and thinkers to give their atrocious beliefs a veneer of acceptability. Their method was to use well-known and regarded intellectual figures as pre-Nazi figureheads, making their arguments fit into Nazi ideology; to fool the populace into believing that their base thuggery was actually justified. Many of their philosophical pilfering came from relevant sources; ones who actually did support what they believed in. Thinkers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte , Martin Luther and Oswald Spengler were held up by the Nazi party as influences and their thinking was mashed together in order to create the pseudo-philosophy that called itself National Socialism.
Other thinkers were used by the Nazis when their original ideas had no basis in racism, homophobic and anti-Semitic theories. The Nazis used these thinkers in order to create an extra layer of justification for their theories; the idea being that a far-right party is expected to use far-right theorists but if a far-right party can prove that others in society have been thinking the same thing and yet are not part of far-right politics, then this gives their arguments an extra thick mist of ‘respectability’.
One of the most vilified thinkers, partly because of his connection to the Nazis and partly because of his own eccentric thinking, is Friedrich Nietzsche. Although Hitler probably read nothing or very sparse amounts of Nietzsche, he, and the Nazi party, felt fit to use aspects of his philosophy in order to justify their actions and ideas. Most of Nietzsche’s ideas that made it into the Nazi ideology seem to have come second hand from Alfred Rosenberg which was then filtered and distorted through the party by other high-ranking Nazis. Second hand knowledge is always dangerous when it comes to matters of philosophy, but with the Nazi party and the people involved within in it, it is not surprising that a radical thinker such as Nietzsche was misinterpreted and conflated in this way.
The major concept used by the Nazis was the idea of the ‘ubermensche’ and the ‘will to power’. The Nazis distorted the ideas to make it seem that people had to exercise their ‘will to power’ (their oppressive force) in order to create a eugenically ‘clean’ people; the ‘ubermensche’ or ‘superman’. In other words, the German people should oppressively push the lower people down so that the ethnically clean people, the Nordic race, could rise to the top, where they apparently belonged as the ‘super-people’. Nietzsche certainly didn’t have this in mind when he coined the terms; he was vehemently critical of anti-Semitism and nationalism. What Nietzsche actually meant was that he felt that people should use their ‘will to power’ to overcome obstacles in themselves and therefore strive to better themselves in a world where new values are continually being created due to the constant questioning of old values. This striving would eventually lead humans to overcome the obstacles and thereby become the ‘super-person’ they could. Many have criticised this philosophy as egotistical and selfish, which it is, but it still has value as a conduct for questioning the values and morals of the past; which is what Nietzsche felt people should be doing.
Another thinker made infamous due to his connection to the Nazis is Richard Wagner. Wagner is famous for being a composer and conductor but he also wrote many essays about music and theory which are still influential today. Unfortunately, Wagner was also an anti-Semite and wrote many essays about this subject too. Hitler idolised Wagner and so he became the official music of the Nazi Party. Hitler saw in Wagner’s music and ideas a reflection of his own ideas about the German nation. Many other prominent Nazis disliked Wagner, however, and resented having to sit and listen to the Hitler supported performances.
Despite the anti-Semitic work of Wagner, and his alienating eccentricity, he was fairly well-regarded in his time as both a composer and as a thinker. Like Hitler, Wagner was also an animal-lover; both were opposed to vivisection and Hitler, in particular, took his love of animals to the point of becoming a vegetarian. Inconsistencies in thought like this are very typical of extreme thinkers.
Much of Wagner’s thought was influential and continues to be now.
His idea of the ‘gersamtkunstwerk’, the total work of art (one that involves all areas of the artistic sphere: art, music, drama, etc) is still an ideal chased by many artistic practitioners. His use of ‘leitmotivs’ in his operatic work signals in the use of ‘themes’ in films to announce characters; think of John William’s Indiana Jones theme or the music in Jaws. Wagner’s thought was also influenced by Schopenhauer, and the use of Eastern mythic structures and themes in his work comes mainly from his own interpretation of Schopenhauer. This East-meets-West theorising, although basic in Wagner’s work, is still something that many practitioners work within today.
It is also worth mentioning that Nietzsche was a friend of Wagner and shared many ideas with him, but that the friendship was broken because Nietzsche felt that Wagner pandered too much to Christian ideals and the new Reich in the late 1800s; displeasure that was written about in a few of Nietzsche’s essays.
Certainly almost all of the philosophers collected and distilled by the Nazis in their ideology had negative aspects and some downright horrible theories but to negate an entire thinker’s work because of certain elements is to hide away from only the disgusting when we should analyse the oeuvre as a whole.
The Nazis did exactly the opposite to this: they collected all the most revolting writing by their ‘chosen-ones’ and pieced it all together, highlighting only the bits they felt supported their own repellent thinking.
This use of the selected parts of thinkers’ and philosophers’ work as justification for acts that seem utterly repulsive, with or without the philosophy, is a common trait among terrorists, either state-sanctioned or not.
Far-right thinkers using selected parts of the Bible, Fundamentalist Muslims using their own interpretations of the Koran; there are countless religious and non-religious groups who make their own theories about their actions by stealing and misappropriating theories from others.
This is, to a degree, a part of human nature; we read, hear, watch and assimilate information, disregard the parts we don’t want to think about and collect together the parts that appeal to us and our ‘personality’. This collected mass of information, theories and philosophy is what makes up our ideas about the world and is what we use to justify our actions.
Think about a man or woman who has done something that they shouldn’t have. Most of us will apologise for what we have done, but we will also justify our action by applying some sort of philosophical sticky plaster to the wound. In circumstances like this, it would usually be best to admit that an error was committed and then apologise but as a method of self-preservation, it feels better to smooth things over with our own theory. This is extremely common with politicians who will partially admit that they did something wrong but then try to cover the offence with a smear of party theory. In these circumstances, again, it would be best to admit that something was done incorrectly and apologise for this. If this happened in politics, then the public would be far more trusting of politicians as it would prove that they weren’t trying to cover up every mistake with theory, which makes them seem dishonest, and that they were willing to apologise for their mistakes.
Another, more modern, collector of selective theories which supported his far-right ideals is the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik; the man behind the bombing of Oslo and the shootings of Utøya Island in July 2011.
There is a well-known opinion about Hitler’s autobiography, and manifesto, Mein Kampf, that readers reading the book for the first time expecting it to be full of the excitable and outrageous rhetoric that Hitler’s speeches were famous for, are disappointed as the book is one long, rambling essay of self-righteousness. Readers and casual enquirers of Anders Behring Breivik’s book 2083, a European Declaration of Independence are also struck by the overbearing dullness of his political ramblings.
If Hitler and Breivik had kept their opinions solely in writing and hadn’t acted on them, then they would be easily dealt with; washed away by history to be returned to the sea of unending dull thought.
The fact that they turned their opinions into action is also, unfortunately, part of their philosophy.
One of the quotes most associated with Breivik is the John Stuart Mill quote: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests” which Breivik posted on a Twitter account before he staged his dual attacks.
As with most terrorist and extremist thinkers, Breivik has taken what he feels is appropriate for his cause from Mill and therefore associated the rest of the philosophy of Mill with his campaign.
Mill, it is almost obvious to say, would not have agreed to the philosophy or actions of Breivik.
The book that Mill first used this phrase in was On Liberty and in the rest of the book Mill refers to his philosophy of liberalism and, in particular, his notion of the ‘harm principle’. The harm principle is Mill’s concept that the state, or any other social body, has no right to restrict the individual unless the individual causes harm to others in society.
The concept of the harm principle and Mill’s philosophy of liberalism espoused in On Liberty work against Breivik’s own conservative philosophy; if Breivik were to follow the quotation he used through to the actual meaning given to it by the text it was contained within, then he wouldn’t have committed his crimes. Breivik merely used the quote as a rallying cry for others who thought like him and as a justification to himself and others for his acts. Ironically, looking through On Liberty we can see just how far removed Mill’s thinking was from Breivik’s as is shown by the following quote: “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”
Within Breivik’s book, 2083, there are also numerous allusions and direct quotations from other writers, thinkers and bloggers; many share his views in one or two regards but not the entirety of Breivik’s vision. Many of the writers that Breivik mentioned and quoted in his book have been questioned and vilified in the press; many deserved to but some did not. One particular and interesting mass quote that Breivik used was the manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future written by Theodore Kaczynski, or the Unabomber. In parts of Breivik’s book he merely copies huge chunks of the Unabomber’s manifesto and replaces words that he feels aren’t associable with his argument and replaces them with others. The very fact that Breivik copied text from a manifesto that has quite a different viewpoint from his own and changed it to suit is indicative of his assembled philosophy.
The forensic clinical psychologist Ian Stephen was quoted as saying that Breivik “is absolutely meticulous in his development of his philosophy and he has researched everything, obviously shut away for a long period of time reading, researching, digging into the internet, reading books”. It is possible to see, then, some contrast to the image that most media outlets present of extremists; that of a raving maniac, uncontrolled and elementally dangerous. In fact, many accounts of extremists and people convicted of atrocities, have described them as being different from the media representation of them. In particular, the image of the attacker was first portrayed in sensationalist news stories as being a raving fundamentalist but when it finally came out that Breivik was responsible, the media finally looked into how it was that he became the way he was.
This is important to think about as it makes us think about how ideas are misused and misunderstood by people; a strong idea can galvanize a person, or a group of people, into a political mindset. This can work in both a good and a bad way. What it is important to remember is that people do absorb information and opinions and that these do affect the way they think about the world. What makes the difference is that some people chose to act on these collected opinions and some do not. We need to think about what elements make up the quotations and philosophies used by people and look past the initial facade that they present. When we can look at what a quote or opinion actually represents, rather than what the user presents it as, then we can analyse why the user misrepresents it and we can dispel any respectability associated with the misrepresentation. Only when something has been shown to misrepresented, and has not been merely denounced, can we question the circumstances and the roots of the thought underlying it.