Between Jesus and Hitler

Hubertus asked:

In view of Hitler or Trump, by what criteria — if any — would you call a person or its ardent followers sane or insane? Or don’t you see any difference between, say, Jesus and his followers and Hitler and his followers? Are there no valid criteria?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

First off, allow me to decline your invitation to share my views about Hitler, President Trump, or Jesus Christ. Except to say that there are readers of this page who are neither ardent or fanatical, who think that Trump is a good guy, and there are also readers of this page who think that Jesus was actually not such a good guy.

Seven decades after the end of WWII it is still politically incorrect to say anything good about Hitler or his followers. Few would doubt that Hitler was evil. But what is really scary is that many of his followers were ordinary people, decent folks who helped their neighbours and were kind to animals.

Sanity/ insanity is a much abused distinction — witness the Soviet treatment of dissidents. Anyone who objects to communism must be insane, mustn’t they? I would be very careful bandying that label!

Charles Manson, who died just a few days ago, would be a better example. Were his followers insane? If the answer to that is, No, then you really couldn’t have a better case. Were they brainwashed? Is being brainwashed a form of insanity? Certainly, if the result is that you become a jibbering idiot (as in the movie The Ipcress Files, 1965). But if it’s just another name for indoctrination, then you would have to call a large proportion of the human population ‘insane’.

Being ‘ardent’ or ‘fanatical’ isn’t a form of insanity. It’s one of the normal ways in which human beings express themselves. Normality is a spectrum. It is normal to be what some would term ‘irrational’ about some person or topic. Having the power of reason doesn’t entail that an individual is particularly good at reasoning, or that they are what you or I would call a ‘reasonable’ person.

And even if you are a ‘reasonable’ person who is ‘good at reasoning’, there may still be particular things — in fact, there probably are — which you are irrational about. (Call me irrational, but I won’t listen to any argument, however persuasive, for the view that Eric Clapton wasn’t the greatest rock guitarist of all time.)

What is the difference between the people who followed Jesus and the people who followed Hitler? Do I have to say? We admire those who preach love, and despise those who preach hatred. But don’t you hate Hitler and the Nazis? At least you can say you hate what they did, even if you are willing to extend to them Christian ‘love’.

If you are looking for criteria for sanity, there’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Evil isn’t listed in the manual because it isn’t a form of insanity. There’s a lot of evil about. Sad to say, evil and malice are natural human tendencies, a place on the spectrum of normality.

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