Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) spoke these words in 1946. In an interview many years later he confessed with regret that he hadn’t thought to write it down. So it’s not surprising that versions of it have since proliferated. Nevertheless, as good a version as any is this one:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
But speaking out is not a straightforward matter, is it? By the time they started coming for the Jews it was too late to speak out. So it had to be when they came for the socialists, or not at all.
But hold on. Maybe they were right to come for the socialists. Or, in the present context, for the revisionists. Or the Creation Scientists. Or the global warming deniers. After all, these are all people who are clearly wrong. And surely it’ll be granted that some wrongs are dangerous. If this weren’t so they’d have never come for the socialists in the first place. Besides, we’re in no danger that they’ll end up coming for the Jews, because we know where to draw the line. It’s somewhere between … Well, we may not know where it is exactly, but we know it’s out there somewhere.
And besides, we’re not Jesus. We can’t be asked to die on every hill. If we spread ourselves too thin we just make ourselves ridiculous. The knee-jerk social justice warrior is a cross between Sisyphus and Prometheus, forever condemned to rolling the rock up the hill, and then, for his troubles, having his liver pecked out daily by an eagle. As with Sisyphus, justice is forever just one campaign out of reach; and as with Prometheus, the cost of campaigning can be one’s friends, one’s family, even one’s livelihood. So we are morally entitled to pick our battles, including no battle at all.
Not so, say I. It’s your baby on the doorstep because it’s your doorstep. I didn’t ask for that idiot as a colleague. But he’s the idiot down and around two corners in my hallway. And that puts him on my watch.
But it’s not that simple, is it? In the current so-called War on Terror the Americans aren’t worried about their own soldiers being tortured. Why not? Because they’re dropping their Daisy Cutters from 50,000 feet. So Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are for them complete freebies. Likewise, then, most of the professors in Management and the so-called hard sciences aren’t worried about being suspended for expressing an opinion, because they have no opinions to express. So it’s largely people in the Humanities and Social Sciences who sign the petitions when one of their own – one of their own notwithstanding he’s an idiot – is under attack. Somewhere in the back of our minds we worry that some day we might ourselves want to say something idiotic. And even if we never do, the fact that we dare not reveals ourselves to ourselves as frauds.
But the would-be little Adolfs who run our university aren’t worried about our having this niggle, because they’ve taken pains to ensure we’re too busy worrying that it might be, as it was for Niemoller, too late to speak out. So I can’t condemn my colleagues as moral cowards. They have friends and families and livelihoods to worry about. And the only reason I don’t worry is that I’m so close to retirement now that walking away a few months or a year earlier than planned is no longer a deterent.
But I’m sad. In fact I’ve been sad pretty much for the two decades I’ve been at this university. I’m sad because it’s a sad university. It’s a sad university – always has been – because from the outset it’s had a culture of administrative fiatism, and among its faculty a culture of keeping one’s head down instead of thrusting it forward.
I’m not unmindful that this is a First World problem. We walk away with our pensions. Elsewhere in the world people don’t walk away with their lives. If I walk away I’ll be sitting on my balcony overlooking the Amalfi Coast. This summer, like each of the last six summers, two hours down the coast there’ll be lungs filling up with salt water. Neither of us, neither you nor I, can do anything about that. But it makes me sad that we can but won’t do anything about the (albeit by comparison trivial) tragedy unfolding on our doorstep.