I hate my “work” very much. I was translating a large document about inventory management and stock taking for a beer factory. After many hours sitting behind my monitor, I saw the words flashing on my screen.
Warehouse. Disposal. Stock Keeping Unit. Master Record. Signing Confirmation.
Suddenly it dawned on me that if this were a document about the destruction machinery of the Nazis, I wouldn’t have noticed.
Sign off. Disposal. Stock taking. Warehouse transfers.
It was a chilling experience. This, exactly this, must have been the way Nazi bureaucrats felt when they were carrying out their tasks, when they were operating the machinery that carried out the holocaust. This was what the banality of evil felt like. Indistinguishable of any other banality – even the banality of the good.
I think it is a certain state of mind you get in after engaging in repetitive work. The repetitive work gets us into a stupor-like, apathetic state that is entirely disconnected with the breath of life, and uncritical about the impact of whatever we are doing.
Scrapping. Disposal. Redundancy.
I need to escape this state of mind. Everybody needs to escape this state of mind. But experiencing it first hand is priceless. I want to read Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. I want to know if what I experienced is the mental state that is necessary and sufficient to operate the killing machine. It’s very humbling, and it should make us damn sad, this banality of evil, and how we too are not immune to it.
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
But if we learn from such experiences that we can be conditioned that easily, there might also be some good news. We could condition ourselves with a “normal”, with norms, before the terrible normal of the destructive machinery does it for us. We could be relatively free if we make sure our norms stay ahead of historical normalcy. That is the essence of discipline: To self-impose a norm before its polar opposite is forced upon you, before the terrifying normalcy of consensus impairs your reason.