E Jane Dickson: It's time we stopped playing the 'what if?' game

We persist in the unhelpful notion that to understand, we must first ‘experience

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What would you do in the face of evil? Would you stand up for justice or would you simply follow orders? These are the questions that gnaw at our untested souls. Born to an era of peace and plenty, the post-war generation cannot, it seems, stop playing the "what if?" game.

A shudder ran through France this week with the airing of Zone Extrême, a spoof reality TV show where contestants were urged by a baying crowd to administer potentially fatal electric shocks to their opponents. It was the latest variant on a social experiment that has run since 1961 when Stanley Milgram set up his seminal conscience vs authority experiment at Yale University after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The Holocaust, in Western society at least, remains the benchmark of human degradation. Last week it was the turn of school children in Lanarkshire to "experience" the trauma of persecution: 11-year-olds were selected according to the month of their birth and subjected to Nazi-style segregation and humiliation.

It is entirely necessary that children should learn about the Holocaust, but there has to be a better way of going about it. I don't doubt the authentic distress of the children who believed, for 15 minutes, that they were to be snatched from their families – I would certainly have been among the parents who complained – but I cannot believe that such a set-up is any useful approximation to destroyed lives.

I felt the same distaste on visiting the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where Daniel Libeskind's award-winning conceptual architecture culminates in the Holocaust Tower, an unlit concrete silo. Here, visitors are invited by means of a discreet plaque at the entrance to consider their feelings of alienation as sounds of the everyday world filter through the reinforced walls. There is a wealth of material, excellently curated, in the Jewish Museum which demands painful reflection; I don't need to be shut up in a dark, scary place to know that the Holocaust was hellish. Such stylised simulation seems to me a tasteless and potentially dangerous underestimation of human sympathy.

Some things are beyond metaphor. Some horrors are literally, one might say mercifully, unimaginable, yet we persist in the unhelpful notion that in order to understand, we must first "experience", as if life were one long movie with ourselves in the starring role. Our children live in a kind of continuum of subjectivity – from the virtual world of computers and Disney-style museum attractions to experiments such as the Lanarkshire Holocaust project. The benefits are varied and, ultimately, limited. I have taken my son and daughter to the Trench Experience at the Imperial War Museum, and yes, they found it both exciting and instructive, but they were not walking over corpses, and I hope they realised the immeasurable chasm between a visitor attraction and Armageddon.

Putting oneself in the shoes of a victim is a starting point; the leap from "how would I feel if it were happening to me?" to "how would I act if it were happening to someone else?" is arguably more important. Edmund Burke's flat observation that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" is, for my money, worth any number of stage-managed scenarios.

While we frighten ourselves with "what ifs", there are real victims in front of our faces whose suffering proves Burke's terrible truth. It emerged this week that Cardinal Sean Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, acted as secretary at a meeting in 1975 where children abused by one of the country's most notorious paedophile priests were compelled to sign a vow of silence. Brady referred the children's complaints to his superior, but did not inform the police and the paedophile in question, Fr Brendan Smyth, continued his abuse for another 18 years.

Brady has apologised, but so far is resisting calls for his resignation, which his supporters in the Catholic Church consider "a matter of personal conscience". It might be reasoned that the conscience of a man who would stand by while abused children are sworn to secrecy is less than reliable. Maybe Brady was just following orders. Maybe – at a stretch of Christian charity – he was the good man who did nothing.

It is, above all, the exercise of conscience that our children need to learn. It is pointless and demeaning to the suffering of others to be constantly wondering what we would have done in their situation, because we simply cannot know. If history teaches us anything it is to look beyond personal experience and discern what is right. The last thing we need to teach our children is fear. That will kick in all by itself.

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