Few people have been more misunderstood than the much-maligned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. For many, the name of Nietzsche conjures up images of jackbooted fascists, and to some he is considered to be the intellectual underpinning of Nazism, with his ideas of will, nihilistic tendencies, and the oft-quoted notion of the übermenschen. Yet indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.
Throughout his life, Nietzsche fought viciously against any sentiment of Pan-Germanism, resurgent romantic nationalism, and indeed against pre-Nazi streams in German thought, including an explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism. Nietzsche’s disgust at the anti-Semitism of many of his peers led to the permanent break in his long personal friendship with the composer Richard Wagner and his almost complete estrangement from his sister, who, together with her husband, was an active agitator for the ideologies which would later be crystallised in Hitler’s vision.
In fact, it was Nietzsche’s sister who attempted to promote the idea that his philosophy provided the intellectual justification for Nazism. After his death, she published his works with deliberate misquotations, censored passages, and with the addition and juxtaposition of sections which completely misconstrued the meaning. Nietzsche died at 55, though his intellectual work ended just after he turned 44, when, on the occasion of his birthday, he penned the following line in an autobiographical sketch of himself: “Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”
Indeed, he has been mistaken for someone else– several times over. In particular I have been thinking a lot about Nietzsche because of the tragedy of remembrance. It is only recently, and even then, only in the narrow confines of academic philosophy, that an open reappraisal of who Nietzsche was has really resounded. To most, he still is tainted by a facile and non-factual association with Fascism.
How easily do we misunderstand things around us! We misunderstand each other, we misunderstand our history, and more often than not, we misunderstand ourselves. Yet rather than continually question our own perceptions, we tend to double-down on them, assuming their truth beyond all doubt. The examples are endless of our tendency to see something, take it as fact, and then take drastic action as a result.
This past week, in a far more mundane realm than Nietzschean philosophy, the internet engaged in yet another great collective rush to judgement. An three-way altercation between a group of young men from a Kentucky high school, a Native American protestor, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites spewing hate-speech led to a confusing clip which quickly went viral.
Lots of media outlets did what they do best– picked up a story that appeared to evoke emotions, paint good and bad with a broad brush, and then in classic 2019-fashion, share, share, share. Within 48 hours, half of America knew where Covington Catholic was and who Nathan Phillips was. Yet, as it later turned out, no one really knew what actually happened that day outside the Lincoln Memorial. It turns out that it was a lot more complicated.
I have no interest in excusing anyone’s bad behaviour, but it has been fascinating to watch the media firestorm as it swallows itself and turns itself inside out, from the safe distance of the UK. What pundits hoped would be an easy-sell story about MAGA hat-wearing school boys taunting a Native American veteran turned out to be not so simple at all. The truth is still hard to suss out exactly, but a quick glance at the evidence makes it clear that the dangerous dichotomy set out by the press isn’t it.
It took Nietzsche 50 years for his books to become bestsellers, and another 50 years for scholars to realise they had gotten them completely wrong. In 2019, the radical swings in misperception happen in minutes and hours, in 140 characters and in Facebook adverts short enough to stop watching before the commercial starts. It seems that now, more than ever, we need to approach the information we are being told with a tremendous degree of skepticism. Consider multiple sides, consider who benefits and who is hurt by a particular narrative, consider whether there might be more evidence– whatever you do, be always willing to reconsider the misunderstanding and misperceptions that we make, and are encouraged to make, all the time.