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May 29, 2018

Being a Witness to What is Right

Presley discusses Albert Camus’s essay “Neither Victims nor Executioners.”

In 1946, shortly after World War II, existentialist writer Albert Camus wrote a powerful essay that speaks to the issue of not only doing what is right but also being a “witness” to what is right. He was talking about war but what he said is relevant for many other conflicts between what is right and what is not. He called his essay “Neither Victims nor Executioners.” It first appeared as a series in a Parisian resistance newspaper, Combat, to which he had been an underground contributor during the Nazi occupation. [Ed. Note—the full text is posted at the Peace Pledge Union website.]

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which we have elaborated in every detail — a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression… that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis — and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing…

For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder, and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is done, and that is as far as I can go at present…. However, I want to make clear the spirit in which this article is written.

We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be — that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of — do not wish for them success in power politics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Europe. This is the kind of elementary truth we are likely to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.

We are still being asked to hate such and such a people—immigrants, Muslims, gays. Why? Because they are the Other. They are not Us. Those who fear them tell lies about each of these groups. Immigrants are criminals. Muslims are terrorists. Gays are immoral. But as the Cato Institute points out, none of this is true. They are only convenient myths to soothe the consciences of those who need to hate. The people who need to hate are driven by their own suppressed fears and uncertainties. They lash out to hide those fears from themselves.

But the fact that many people, mostly fundamentalists, are spreading this misinformation is all the more reason why we need to be witnesses for the truth. Stand up for the rights of immigrants, gays, Muslims; for the rights of individuals. Post about the misinformation. Refuse to associate with those who propagate lies. If we remain silent, do we “compromise with murder,” as Camus suggests? We each have to answer that question for ourselves. But I think silence is dangerous.

What can we do? How do we stand up? For many of us, one answer is to post on Facebook. For example, you could link to an article from the Cato Institute that tells the truth about immigrants. Post statistics that tell the truth about domestic terrorism. Speak up if someone you know attacks Muslims or gays or feminists. Don’t laugh off sexist or homophobic remarks. Your silence will be seen as assent.

In your community, seek out those in need. Donate to community institutions that help the poor. If we, as libertarians, say that the community can provide, then we musn’t be hypocrites. Be part of it.

If you are religious, speak out in your church, synagogue, or temple. If your religious organization is providing charitable help for the poor, be part of it. If it is not, ask why.

If you live in a big city that sometimes has protest demonstrations, join the ones that match your beliefs. Be part of a larger chorus of voices that may have some impact.

Think about what talents you have that can be used for the good. I’m a writer but you might be a good organizer. Or you might be willing to tutor children through the local library program for literacy. Or volunteer for the local animal shelter. Treating animals well is doing what is right. A society that neglects its animals is a mean society. Meanness breeds more meanness.

Always, always speak out against meanness. It’s very easy to attack those we disagree with. But how much better to offer a cogent argument instead of nasty epithets?

Hating and spreading hate and meanness help no one.

Perhaps some of you may be saying—what difference does my one voice make? But any demonstration is made up of many individuals. Letters to the editor get read. Your contribution buys a meal for a hungry person. Your defense of someone who is attacked for no good reason may encourage others to do what is right as well. You can make a real difference on the margin.

However, part of the reason for standing up for what is right is for your own well-being. If you remain silent when someone is being attacked and you know that’s wrong, how will you feel about yourself? If you stand up for that person or refuse to laugh at a sexist or homophobic joke, you will know you have done what’s right. It helps you as a person as well as helping the people you defend. Being a coward is not good for the psyche.

There are many, many battles to be fought. You can’t fight them all, of course. You have to pick the ones that are meaningful to you. But by standing up for what you think is right, you make your community (physical or online) better and you make yourself a better person.

James Peron points out that Ayn Rand said something very similar. “Ayn Rand warned, in 1972[,] that [if] you want to see change, speak out. She said you shouldn’t give the status quo ‘your silent sanction.’ When she was asked what individuals should do, she said ‘Do not keep silent when your own ideas and values are being attacked.’ Don’t give bigots a silent sanction.”

Don’t be a victim of hatred. Don’t allow your views to be laughed at or ignored. But don’t be an executioner either. Don’t be the one who hates or spews venom toward those with different views. Never hesitate to stand up for what you think is right—but do it civilly. Ranting impresses no one.

Camus predicted a struggle between those who chose words and discourse, on one hand, and those who choose weapons and violence, on the other, and urged us to “stake everything” on the side of words:

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

Always be ready to say the right words; not words of hate but words of love and hope. The words that witness what is right.