24 April 2010

The Wave

Recently a friend and coworker told me about an slightly aged public service-type movie called The Wave, in which a teacher turns his classroom into a cult after not being to explain adequately how the Nazis came to and endured in power for so long while committing so many heinous crimes. The dialog and acting are sometimes stilted and forced, but the ending scene is particularly effective.

The full thing is a little over forty minutes, during which time Mr. Ross's classroom becomes more and more a cult experience beginning with lessons on posture, acquiring chants and symbols, and maturing the way such things do -- creating violence against those outside the group or those inside who question its merits. Even the teacher, who knows what he is doing, is affected by the increasing role he plays in his students lives. The film culminates with a group-wide meeting in the school auditorium, where Mr. Ross tells them they are part of a nation-wide youth organization intent on reforming the nation. "Look at your future", Ross yells, and the entire audience is struck dumb by footage of Hitler and the Hitler Youth, perhaps taken from Triumph of the Will.

You thought you were so special. Better than everyone outside this room. You traded your freedom for the luxury of feeling superior. You accepted the group's will over your own convictions, no matter who you hurt. Oh, you thought you were just going along for the ride, that you could walk away at any moment... but where were you heading -- and how far would you have gone?  [...]

If history repeats itself, you will all want to deny what has happened to you and the Wave. But if our experiment is successful, you will have learned that we are all responsible for our own actions, and that you must question what you do -- and that you will never allow a group's will to usurp your individual rights. I know this has been painful for you. It certaintly has for me, but it's a lesson we'll all share for the rest of our lives. 

Freethinkers such as myself and most readers will probably not think themselves too susceptible to this kind of thing, but we all have our weaknesses. The idea of community is particularly alluring for social animals like ourselves, as is perhaps the instinct to cooperate with tribal rulers.  When do the ends justify the means? Whatever our weaknesses, strengths, or desires, someone is willing to take advantage of them and corrupt good intentions to foul deeds. The price of liberty  -- both from other people and from our weaknesses -- is indeed vigilance.