There are probably a dozen of you who are in the subset of people who read my blog and who would understand the context of the comment, “I called someone a Nazi today.” This phrase comes out of my mouth more often than you might imagine, and today I think it’s time to turn the tables: I might have been a Nazi.
For clarification, and to avoid offending people, let me explain. I absolutely do not make a habit of calling people Nazis. I’ll add even more adamantly that I do not harbor any murderous resentment against any other racial or religious group. When I say I called someone a Nazi, what I mean is that I called someone out on their complacency regarding a policy or manner of thinking that I would consider to be bad. Bad is such a subjective word, I know, but as it’s less caustic than “evil” and more applicable to the reason I’m calling myself a Nazi, let’s go with it.
John and I went out this Friday to begin our Valentine’s weekend celebration. Our philosophy for romantic occasions is not so much to buy each other presents, but to instead by a gift for ourselves as a couple that will give us an excuse to spend good time together. This year, we decided to start building a collection of essential oils for the purpose of making homemade massage oil. We did our research on oils, Googled a placed to buy them, and with the aid of a friendly clerk, found the section we were looking for.
Essential oils, for those of you who aren’t familiar with them, come in very small quantities, because they’re highly concentrated and also not inexpensive. The pricing labels for the bottles are, therefore, about twice as wide as the bottles themselves and as a result of this poor (or conniving) planning, we could only find the prices for about a third of the oils. The prices ranged from about six dollars to twenty, and while twenty is a lot to pay for a third of an ounce of fluid, we shrugged off the concern because it was our Valentine’s present to one another.
I was looking at all the gimicky crud around the register while John paid when I heard the clerk announce the total due as eighty something dollars. My head whipped around in shock and I saw that one of the oils had cost not twenty, but more than fifty. I started to protest, looking to John for confirmation, but the look on his as he swiped his card was so resigned that I closed my mouth. As we left the store and drove home, John started to come out of the sticker shock that had numbed him into accepting the cost of the oil and we realized that neither of us had meant to be okay with paying quite that much for so little oil. Alone, neither of us would have made the choice to buy that oil, but together, we unintentionally bullied one another into complacence.
There’s an interesting book by a guy named Blumenthal that uses the data from the Milgram experiments (among other things) to consider how it is that so many probably decent Germans took active part in the Holocaust, which Blumenthal calls the Shoah. This book is the reason that I have the habit of noting that I called someone a Nazi when I commented on their complacency with a bad decision because thee idea that had stuck thoroughly with me is that people have a very strong tendency to obey authority and go with the flow. In groups, people are more likely to fall back on not making the uncomfortable decision, even if it is the only ethically acceptable one.
John and I spent some time talking about the oil purchase and as we did, I realized that we had both been guilty of that same mentality–no one else is speaking up, so I guess I won’t either. Not that the purchase of an overpriced bottle of oil is anything remotely like gassing millions of human beings for nothing more than the color of their hair or shape of their nose, but it struck me to recognize in my own brain the same social wiring that paved the way for those very, let’s face it, evil decisions of the Nazis.
When the subject comes up, I think we all tend to bluster that we never could do such things as the Nazis did. Maybe that blustering is even a way of creating an identity around not being evil that helps us to be better people. When I think about that study about how your brain requires you to make the correct decision three to five thousand times to overwrite something so simply as a habitual motion, I can’t help but think that our habits for interacting with people are even more deeply ingrained in our situation. If horrible things were to happen around us, would we stand up for our ethical beliefs, or would we fall back on the comfortable social patterns that run our lives quite nicely most of the time?
I suspect it’s harder than we often think to not be evil.