I think one of the hardest things about confronting real history is appreciating the differences in normative thinking between now and that which prevailed in earlier times. We look back on the Jim Crow discrimination of pre-1960s America or the anti-Semitism of 1930s Germany, and it is natural enough to think, “That was so wrong,” and we react with outraged anger. But we fail to realize that had we been alive or older at the time, we might have been willing participants in some of the behavior that so infuriates us today.
This is not to say that we would have been members of the Ku Klux Klan or Schutzstallel—the vast majority of people just “go along” with the prevailing winds—but if we thought of ourselves as “movers and shakers,” maybe we would have been guilty of some of the crimes which we regard as so unthinkable by today’s standards.
When thinking about the changes in thinking through history, it is important to draw a distinction between attitudes and beliefs. To borrow a concept written about by Gustav LeBon (whose ideas were influential to an understanding of propaganda amongst Hitler’s inner circle), attitudes are like the shifting sands atop a bedrock of beliefs. Beliefs change very slowly, whereas attitudes change much more quickly depending on what people are told.
This is why Dylann Roof, despite his young age, seems like such a throwback to the past.
US Troops Tested By Race In Secret World War II Chemical Experiments
by Caitlin Dickerson, National Public Radio