I’ve always been particularly fascinated by World War II. More specifically, how Adolf Hitler was able to convince hundreds of thousands of ordinary people to participate in, or at least tolerate, the systematic massacre of more than six million people during his reign. How were so many people able to abandon their professional and moral objections and participate in such atrocities? This question still haunts me.
This summer I had the chance to visit Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum. It was nothing short of tremendous. From the moment I stepped off the elevator, I felt the weight of the world gone terribly wrong. From the piles of shoes taken from prisoners who were gassed to death, then reissued to those still living, to the standard-issue striped pajamas that hung off the side of a metal bunk, I was confronted by the very humanity that had somehow been forgotten during the Holocaust. I wanted to understand. What does this slippery slope to conformity look like? Could I, could we, be at risk?
Included in the museum was The Propaganda Exhibit, which helped unlock some of this mystery that had been plaguing me. Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate opinions and redirect behaviors, in order to achieve an intended end. Hitler, himself, said of the tactic, “Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert,” and he was an expert. And through its use, Hitler was able to sway hundreds of thousands of people to think and act in ways that that, not long before, would have been impossible for them to conceive.
As I walked through the exhibit, confronted by the large, accusing posters, it struck me that there seem to be at least three central steps to effective propaganda campaigns: desensitize, normalize and marginalize. Although it’s been many months since I visited the Holocaust Museum, I recognize these same steps that have moved our culture to think and act in ways we, too, would have never believed.
Tomorrow, the movie adaptation of “global phenomenon” Fifty Shades of Grey will be released in theaters, after selling more than 100 million books worldwide. Fifty Shades of Grey, billed as “romantic erotica,” tells the fictitious story of a Seattle billionaire who enlists a woman to be an object of his degrading and violent sexual acts. The billionaire is partial to BDSM—a term encompassing the practices of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. The woman must sign a contract, agreeing to full submission - relinquishing control over her body, diet, hygiene, sleep, and wardrobe.
We know desensitization has already begun because even while reading that last paragraph, your reaction is likely less extreme than when you first heard of the book/film. That is how desensitization works - what is unfamiliar is slowly and purposefully introduced more and more, until we no longer react, as we once would have. Indulge me for a moment and ponder how this kind of content, sadism and sexual violence, has become a mainstream attraction, let alone a “global phenomenon.”
Desensitization results in the brain turning off emotional responses when witnessing harm done to others. The result is apathy. We become numb. In fact, one recent study_ found that parents who were repeatedly exposed to violence and sexual content became progressively more accepting of the material and, in turn, allowed their children to watch sexually explicit material at increasingly younger ages.
It should come as no surprise that music, television, and movies have more references to sexual violence than ever before. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 50% of PG movies now depict sex and violence_. Another study revealed that more than 63% of prime time television shows contained sexual exploitation of women. And we, as a culture, are growing more accustomed to it through saturation.
This is the very process Hitler used some 75 years ago. “People are so used to it, they don’t get upset any more,” said one German physician. But, let me say clearly, sexual violence is not “normal,” and we should cringe every time we see it - not pay money, buy popcorn and coke, and expect to be entertained by it. What are we doing?
Indoctrination demands conformity. All opposing views and criticism are silenced - if not by might, by marginalization. During Hitler’s reign, there were pockets of people who opposed his ideology and refused to be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic waves of his propaganda campaign. Other rebels were marginalized by criticisms of their intelligence, allegiance, and social statuses. We can see this same trajectory as it relates to pornography. Porn began on the periphery of society, but has now become not only “normal,” but also a so-called “healthy part” of our relationships. Now, those who believe porn to be destructive are labeled the minority and dismissed as prude.
Sexual violence is not normal. Rape and torture are not entertainment. Sexual violence is devastating to the millions of people who endure it. At REST, we have seen its consequences first hand. Some of you may make the distinction that the woman in Fifty Shades of Grey, “opted-in.” But, in the majority of cases of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic violence, exploited people appear they’ve chosen to participate, only later to say that felt powerless and lacked agency. Don’t be fooled.
What’s more, of course, the one who dominates has money and power and he uses those resources to recruit someone who does not. His desire for control is never satisfied. He uses his money and power to isolate her, including by buying the company she works for. This is the same message that many exploiters use: “There’s no use running. I am everywhere. There is no way out.”
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, leaves us with this powerful reminder: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”