About the book “Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil”.

banality, creativity, ordinary human behavior, science innovation

What is it in the behavior of ordinary people — people like you and me, not crazed or “evil” persons — that lends itself to participating in horrendous activities, in genocides such as the Holocaust — and doing so, at times,  with zeal!,  with joy!, and  doing so without duress that forces them to do such things?  The book demonstrates  how this actually happens.  That all this makes use of the very same human behavior that can produce humane, decent living between people.

What are some ways in which this happens?  One of them is how we make decisions in our daily life.  Usually we tend to make small decisions — focused on what we have to deal with today, right now,  rather than great big ones that fundamentally transform our life.  But what I decide today, influences my options tomorrow!  This can get us going in a particular direction, into which we never really planned to go.  For instance, this is precisely how many of us get into a particular career — without ever having clearly chosen to do so. The book starts from a study of student nurses — who became nurses without ever having decided to be nurses.   The book then illustrates how a person — a lawyer, in this case —  who was not a Nazi, could contribute mightily to the Nazi program of persecuting Jews.  He did so by helping to formulate the Nazi anti-Semitic laws, simply because he needed a job, not because he actually believed the Nazi ideology. Still, he actively helped to promote the Nazi program of systematically persecuting Jews.

The book demonstrates more ways in which this can — and did — happen. Here is one: Early in the last century social scientists discovered that among American factory workers — who worked on assembly lines, doing highly routine, repetitive work — there developed a rich, creative Informal Culture.  A component of these cultures was that individuals each carved out a special way for participating in their work group.  They developed a reputation for their “specialty”. It kept being nurtured by being enacted over and over again.

All this — the creation of an informal culture, where each person developed a specialty — also existed in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.  But there  was one crucial difference from the Informal Culture among American factory workers.  The informal culture among Auschwitz guards focused entirely cruelty.  It was a CULTURE OF CRUELTY — where each guard developed a particular specialty in how be cruel toward inmates.  Their “specialty” — often resulting in killing of inmates in the most gruesome way — was enacted over and over again, assuring their reputation among fellow- guards.

Here are some specific, personally created specialties in cruelties, practiced by individual guards, which were brought out at a trial of the guards after the war (cited from my book, CONFRONTING EVIL):

–Hitting prisoners with the edge of the hand in such a way that it either broke their nose or killed them.
–Inventing games, with specific rules, for shooting prisoners as target practice. The inventor was known as William Tell.
–A jovial willingness to shoot prisoners at any time, being extremely trigger happy, but without inventing or participating in games of shooting.
–Killing prisoners with an injection of phenol into the heart. The medical orderly who developed this specialty went to the sick wards on his own and picked up additional victims when doctors did not send him prisoners fast enough. He killed an estimated 20,000 persons in this way.
–Putting prisoners in cold showers, then sending them out into the cold then beating them, then sending them back to the showers. The sequence was repeated until death mercifully intervened.

The development and reputation for these specialties were not left to chance. Frequently a guard’s reputation was deliberately advertised among prisoners and colleagues. It was bragged about. “In me you will get to know the devil” was one of the statements of an SS officer to a new prisoner.

These are examples of the book’s focus on how patterns of ordinary human social behavior — such as the  propensity to form informal cultures when people do routine work — can lead to horrendous activities from a mutation of that propensity.   The implication is that we can understand how this actually works.  The next step — of translating this into ways of interfering with this process — is surely a challenge for the future.