Guy Chapman told somewhere in his memoir of the First World War about an officer who looked at the enemy and then said to the sergeant next to him: “I surrender”. The sergeant took his rifle and shot the officer straight through his head. Another soldier who saw it asked Chapman what to do. He answered: “What can you do? If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine”.
This story tells much about what people can become and then do in extreme circumstances, when they have been brought there by other people. But are the scene and the end of it not an extreme reflection of what on a “lower level” happens in daily life? Through the years we learn a lot from other people, our parents, our teachers, the people around us, about how to behave. These are rather basic things like keeping right on a road, that it is not allowed to steal and what other rules we have to follow, what tastes we have, and so on. But what we learn can also be on the level of prejudices. Some men do not like people with a certain religion, people from a certain neighbourhood, people who are black, people who are white, people who are gay, people who are from a certain country, and so on. All these things are considered “normal” in a certain sense. Our habits are difficult to change, once we have interiorized them. When I am in a country where the traffic keeps left, in the beginning it is almost impossible for me not to look to the left instead of first to the right, when I cross a street. It is an automatism. And when I drive on the left, I feel unhappy. So it is also with many of our prejudices. Once we have them, it is difficult to change them, even when we are aware that they are prejudices and when we want to get rid of them. We cannot change our beliefs at will. Seen that way, what Chapman describes is only an extreme case of what happens in daily life, indeed. Nonetheless, this is no excuse. For although it is true that we cannot turn ourselves or other people off like machines, the quotation implies also that we are no machines. It is so that we cannot learn from one moment to the next to keep to the left, once we have been taught to keep to the right. However, it is a fact that we can learn it and after a shorter or longer time we can behave as if the new situation is normal to us. And it is the same for all the other things we do. We can change our habits and beliefs, even though it can be a long process. Therefore, it can be no excuse that we are what we have become and that’s it. Although we cannot turn other people or ourselves off like a machine, they and we can change. And that’s why Chapman was right and not right at the same time.