How Not to Look Away from Concentration Camps

How Not to Look Away from Concentration Camps

As I’ve described before, I grew up wondering, and thinking through in Sunday school and ethics classes, how people looked away as the Holocaust was developing. And whether I would have the guts to do the same in a similar situation.

Well, now that I’m all grown up and have the PhD in Communication and teach about this stuff, I’ve studied enough and observed enough to realize the apocalypse has been on for a few years now. (Certainly, as I’ve said many times before, much has been made clear during this period, which is what the Greek word behind the word apocalypse means–“to make clear.”)

Because of my expertise, I can certainly see a lot of the picture, and I’m hoping to draw on that knowledge to support those of you who want to help out with immigration advocacy. I hope this article helps. It may take a few minutes to read, but I hope you’ll find it valuable.

More than Enough Evidence that We Need to (Continue to) Act

Last year around this time the news about the zero tolerance policies toward migrants in the US broke (I wrote about that then on this blog). Families Belong Together rallies erupted around the world, and since then, existing and new helpers have been working at the problem even as new dehumanizing policies and treatment has continued to roll out. Now, a year further along, new information about continuing and increasingly horrific treatment of migrants is breaking every day.

That means we all have our chances to see what we would do if such a situation presented itself—because, let’s face it, we aren’t at the 6 million or more dead Holocaust endgame, but we ARE quite a few highly disturbing steps along in a stage where we all have choices to make to try to prevent the worst. In this article I’ll discuss the moral anxieties many of us have about whether we’re doing enough about the current treatment of migrants in the US and how we can all work together to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to address the situation as best we can.

Along the way I’ll sort through some practicalities about some things that help us and others that hinder.


Note: I’m not here to argue about whether the detention camps are technically concentration camps or not. I think making such arguments is valuable, and one of the things many of us can do. In fact, I think speaking up against arguments that encourage denial of the depth of the problems is key, as though those of you that follow closely should know by know (I talked more about the need for that kind of thing here).

But there are several other articles I’ve posted lately over at the Assertive Spirituality Facebook page that address the specific questions about whether the current detention camps warrant the concentration camp label, so that’s not my focus today for this article.

If you feel like commenting about that issue and disagreeing with my choice of the term, I encourage you to go hunt them down and actually read and consider them carefully before dragging us down that rabbit hole in the comments, either here or on reposts of this article.

Goals for This Article

My goal here is supplement these articles by helping us who DO want to help as best we can to address our moral anxieties about what we can do in the situation. With the #dontlookaway hashtag trending, I know there are a lot of you lovely compassionate people out there that may be looking for advice, and I’m more concerned about supporting your needs at the moment than about arguing with detractors.

(Note that the memes and links I offer for easy sharing over on the Assertive Spirituality Facebook page are designed to be part of that support, always.)

See, here’s the thing: Having done a lot of research on the ‘30s, ‘40s, the rhetoric of conspiracy, and stress, trauma and conflict communication, I’m very aware of the roots of why we look away from concentration camps. Concerns about this kind of thing happening has been part of what has driven my own desire to help as I can by starting this project.

I don’t have time to go in-depth into that here—I would love to do a whole course on stress and trauma responses at some point to help people who want to know what’s under the covers with why people look away. But in the meantime, I know a lot of you have such strong compassionate fight responses to fix the problem. I know how strong these responses are, and I don’t want to deter that. I want to honor that and move to helping you help others.

A Few Types of Responses that Convince People to Look Away

So I’ll keep my description of the types of people who look way necessarily short and relatively unnuanced (for me 😉 ):

  1. Defense mechanisms: Some people are trying to shield themselves from dealing with more pain than they feel they can handle. (In some cases this is correct—other times it is an overcorrection.)
  2. Authoritarian systems: Some people have been socialized into beliefs that only some authorities are correct, and that it is dangerous to trust others outside those sources of truth. Those sources are telling them the people at the border are dangerous criminals and “deserve what they get.”
  3. Outrage/Compassion Fatigue: The crazy stress from dealing with the adherents of both groups #1 and #2 has made a third group, who is innately filled with empathy and compassion, exhausted and burned out. Too much stress often makes us only look at the negative and overwhelming sides of situations, to dissociate from the emotions in situations, and to think nothing we do would matter. This is called the fallacy of helplessness.

In fact, groups #1 and #3 often share the fallacy of helplessness. Group #2 does too, but in a different form. In fact, group #2 is really in many ways a subset of #1, since authoritarian strongmen often exploit their followers’ defense mechanisms to get them to the same result as group #3 reaches.

Sorting Through How to Deal with These Groups

When it comes to what we who care about making progress toward change can do, all of this is crucial to take into account for the following reasons:

  1. These groups may be difficult to distinguish from one another at first glance, but it’s important to distinguish them from one another. I talk more in the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Trolls” (free if you sign up for our email newsletter in the top bar of this page!) how to distinguish people who are out to provoke from those who are just having a bad day—take a half hour to read that if you want to learn more about that. I get more into stress responses and how they enter into conflict there.
  2. Note that people who are seemingly trolling on- or offline may be in any of these groups. The ones in group 3 and possibly group 1 are most likely to be open-minded and have enough empathy to be willing to accept correction.
  3. But often it’s the messaging from group 2 that needs the most and the firmest countering in these times. When doing so, it’s important to phrase things to attack the ideas rather than the people when you can.

That said, let’s talk about those of the rest of us who ARE feeling the feels and the moral anxiety many of us are facing about whether we’re doing enough and what else we can do. As I said, my biggest goal here on this project is to help you feel more equipped and able to take these things on as well as to connect with others who are doing the same.

What We CAN Do

Here are a few tips to consider if you’re in that group that is wanting to help, and not to look away from the problem:

  1. If you find that learning about everything and educating others about the details is your gig, that’s great. We need your voice! Just know that for some people, knowing every detail may traumatize even the most compassionate souls, including you, into group #3. You don’t need to read everything or make everyone else read everything either.
  2. So yeah, remember the goal isn’t to traumatize the whole population into action (that’s actually counterproductive, and secondary trauma, which is the kind of trauma often experienced by “helpers,” can often happen). It’s also key to remember that people with existing trauma triggers can be easily triggered by some of these horrific details. So it’s key to keep in mind that the goal is to try to persuade people toward action. To remember that everyone has different limits on what they can take. And to remember that what they (and we) need is reminders of their agency paired with recognition of natural human limitations.
  3. Give yourself and others at least a bit of time as needed to process your own grief about the situation, and figure out what individual responses should be as needed. We need space for individual and collective lament.  
  4. Reach out for support and support others through this process. Remember that offering support to those who are putting themselves out there IS valid and valuable action. That may involve all sorts of support, from emotional support to more “tangible” forms of support. Ask what people need for support as appropriate.
  5. Remember that it’s unhelpful to expect anyone to either do everything to fix the problem or to all do the same thing. Don’t devalue your own or others’ efforts. And while of course we’ll have disagreements, try not to unnecessarily step on each others’ toes!
  6. So yes, try to influence and work together with others to find collective solutions, but try not to spend too much time berating one another about what we individually feel drawn to.
  7. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Seek out resources from those who have already been fighting this fight. There are large swaths of on-the-ground organizations that have guides to offer advice, and that can advise you on what they need from you. Seek them out!
  8. Not everyone is up for debate, but speaking up is a key part of the gig. If speaking up, either online or off, is not your thing, just don’t denigrate it when other people do it, if you can, and if you can, drop some supportive likes, etc. or “I agree with you” comments on someone else’s reasonable points against the unhealthy rhetoric and policies that enable this crap. (Remember, if rhetoric on social media and off didn’t matter, people advocating in group 2 wouldn’t be working so hard to control the messaging, and going so far as to employ troll farms to get the word out! We need people speaking up with countermessaging as well as those doing boots on the ground action.)
  9. If you feel able, try to go out of your way to take some “more tangible,” boots on the ground actions. Whether that means a donation, volunteering with a local-to-you organization or one on the border, advocating for policies, making your church or city a sanctuary church or city, looking for and/or supporting rallies, etc. etc. etc.  
  10. Focus on influencing where you can best influence. Remember that will look a little different for everyone. And that’s okay. It’s also okay to ask one another about their reasoning and influence (but not control) where you can.
  11. Finally, it’s unproductive to discount or overly self-censor your efforts. But do be reflective enough to be willing to learn from what doesn’t go well. Be willing to adjust as needed.

Remember that this effort is a relay marathon and we all need to help one another keep up our efforts as best we can, whatever we can do. At the least, let’s remember these are stressful times. Let’s support one another as much as possible, lest it all affect us so much we get stuck in the outrage fatigue/compassion fatigue group, shall we? If you or others do get there, I wrote an article to help you with that.

And remember that if you’re busy tackling another issue that’s part of the current apocalypse, just do what you can about the border. Maybe that’s supporting others, maybe it’s connecting people, maybe it’s about finding out ways to collaborate among parts of the effort, or maybe it’s about cheerleading. We’re all likely to have rightful disagreements on strategies and such, and hopefully we’ll listen to those with various key types of expertise as we go, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide what part of the apocalypse you are best equipped and positioned to help with.

 Just keep doing what you can as you can, and grieve out what you can’t.

Moving Forward

In short, if taking in all the details and worrying about how history might perceive you is helping you work through your emotions and help with the overall effort, that’s great. If either of those things is hindering you from doing what you can, let’s let some of that go, shall we?

And let’s remember that it’s key to give ourselves time to have supportive conversations and share resources in the midst of this. I would love to see the comments full of these things.

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to attack the toxicity surrounding the current treatment of migrants and demand a healthier and more reasonable way of doing things. Let’s work to make a healthier more compassionate world that truly welcomes the traumatized stranger. We can do this thing.

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6 thoughts on “How Not to Look Away from Concentration Camps

  1. So very well written …amazing points that we don’t normally think of. I see so much of either frozen into doing nothing or trying to do it all (myself included) that this article helps us dissect what we can and cannot do and the healthiest way to handle differing views. Blessings to you!

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I’m so glad to do what I can with the expertise I have–I’m glad to hear it’s been helpful to you. Blessings to you as well! Keep doing what you can!

  2. My goodness….a voice of reason! This has been so helpful for me. As an empath, caregiver & support group facilitator, I am very aware of the need to pull away for my self care. But this issue involving children has been one that I must join to assist. Thank you for offering great tips & suggestions. I so appreciate your wisdom & incite.

    1. You’re so welcome! I’m so glad the article was helpful! We need you in the fight as well as you’re able! Make sure to hang around our blog and FB (and email newsletter, if you can!) for more encouragement and hopefully reason (I do my best!). 🙂

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How Not to Look Away…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 10 min