Why Hierarchies of Suffering & Evil are Useless: A look at immesurable qualities as arguments
“Stalin did in one winter what it took Hitler four years to do. He was so much worse”
“It was scarier to be a prisoner in a death camp than a slave on a plantation.”
“It was better to be persecuted as a homosexual under the Third Reich than a Jew.”
“The Rwandan Genocide was just like the Holocaust but people suffered more horribly.”
These are all things I’ve heard said in a million different ways, in a million different classrooms, by a million different students. Okay maybe not a million, but you catch my drift. While I had always sort of accepted these statements as an opinion, equally valid to any others, in my fourth year I came to realize that well…not all opinions are equal. The thing is, comparing levels of evil and suffering really isn’t useful. It creates what scholars refer to as a “hierarchy of suffering”. In other words, it compares suffering as a spectrum and only serves to disenfranchise one of the groups. Rather, we should spend our time researching meaningful ways of understanding (though we never truly will) the suffering and experiences of various groups without needing to compare them to others in terms of any immeasurable value. While it is valuable to compare things like genocides and leaders in ways such as strategy, numbers, technology etc., these immeasurable qualities are not so. I have proposed a three-part argument as to why these comparisons are complete crap.
1. A group is made up of individuals
The first reason as to why a hierarchy of evil or suffering is bogus is because it lumps individuals together into a single experience. For example, when comparing black slaves in America to Jewish victims of the Holocaust in any country, there are a million different experiences. For example, a Jew living in Warsaw would have a very different experience than one in Paris. A slave who works as a household maid suffered very differently from one in a field. Despite the many ways each individual experiences trauma, isn’t each a valid one? Furthermore, seeing them as single groups and not individuals furthers stereotypes. Was this not the mindset of the original suppressors? To see many very different individuals as a single group?
How about the suppressors themselves? Perhaps they deserve to be seen as a group of evil masterminds plotting world domination…and that’s the extent of it. Tread carefully, that’s dangerous. For example, Stalin and Hitler’s quest for dominance, though both showed a great deal of malice, evil and ruthlessness sprung up very differently. While there are similarities and it is not useless to recognize these, it is useless to say one is more evil than the other. Did they not both kill millions? Are there not different ways that they plotted their take over? Not recognizing this leaves societies open to new dictatorships and evils. We cannot say “This is what makes up any bad dictator anywhere and they will do A, B and C to get to the top.” It’s just not that simple. Having a comprehensive understanding of individual evils is critical.
2. It downplays a wrong
This is fairly simple. Just like suffering of one group is ignored on a hierarchy of suffering, the same is done for evil. Saying “Sure Stalin did bad stuff but he’s no Hitler” downplays the atrocities that Stalin committed.
3. There is no scholarly merit
Finally, hierarchies based on qualities such as evil, suffering or any other immeasurable scale cannot be proved. They appeal to one’s emotions and willingness to give into persuasive statements. Because they can’t be proved, a lack of hard evidence pokes holes in the arguments. You can prove that victims of the Holocaust suffered immensely in various ways, but you can never prove that they suffered more than victims of other genocides because it is largely a matter of perspective.
Just don’t go there.