Yellow Hitler

Vicarious redemption, as all observers of Christianity know, will set dangerous precedents. The President of the Phillipines, Mr Duterte, has said, following calling martial law told police and military forces,

If you go down, I go down. But for this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, just do your job I will take care of the rest

He went on to “joke” that, if any of his goons go on to rape three women, “it’s on him”. Contrary to what you might think, I am cautious about pulling the Hitler Card, the Internet’s most common (and tiresome) reflex. Duterte is not the raving ideologue the other was, and neither is he quite so dangerous (if only because the Phillipines shares little of what made Germany so powerful). But he is the same in one striking, and frightening, way. In what psychologists call “agentic shift”, he offers the psychopaths and brutes of society a moral free pass: unleash your id and expect no repercussions. Responsibility lies elsewhere, in the lofty heights of state power.

Stanley Milgram set out to understand, in a series of fascinating experiments, how the “ordinary” men and women of the Nazi murder machine were able to do what they did. Using American volunteers – putting to quiet any jingoistic nonsense about the uniqueness of the German psyche – he found that a overwhelming majority would, as far as they knew, execute a stranger by electronic shock if an authority figure gave them the okay. (The “victims” were of course actors, but participants genuinely believed they fatally zapping a fellow creature for incorrectly answering general knowledge questions.) A man in a tie and white lab coat – a “social better” – with a commanding voice and reassuring platitudes, was all it took to turn Joe Everyman into a killer.

Duterte’s “law and order” campaign is so dangerous because, like the terrors of the recent past, it exploits two key areas of human failing: the urge to offload responsibility, and the propensity to mistake status for greatness.

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