When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically can be divided into two races:
From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.
This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press, 1959 orig. ed., 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).
Of course, today’s discussions about race and ethnicity are much more complicated. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Especially here in the U.S., these are among the most challenging issues of the day. That said, I think it’s important to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a much simpler way.
I understand how some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life described how people who lived good, moral lives before life in concentration camps could be driven to self-preserving behaviors that hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.
Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors such as the Holocaust. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too. In toxic work situations, otherwise “decent” people can participate or be silently complicit in bullying, mobbing, and harassment that impact lives and livelihoods.
Also, for those targeted by these forms of mistreatment, the basic tenets of logotherapy may be relevant, namely a focus on looking toward the future, while minimizing the vicious cycle and negative feedback loops that can be so sabotaging of one’s well being.
This post was revised in August 2019.