Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
Every afternoon, I plan to ignore a call from Iowa. My phone starts to ring around 3 or 4 p.m. I glance at the screen, see “Humboldt” or “Ottawa” or “Council Bluffs,” sigh, then hang up. Anyone I still speak to in my home state has already been saved as a contact on my phone.
Robocalls are an oddly mundane monster. Their devastation can be horrific; they prey on the elderly and too-trusting. But for most digital natives, robocalls are the sort of bland intrusion we can banish without much effort. They’re irritating, but not especially threatening. Besides, the calls themselves are often just zombie strings of codes, set up to wreak havoc and reap cash. The disembodied voice on the end of the line is just doing its job, however horrible that job may be.
How much choice does it require to become a monster? Can strings of binary code be as monstrous as their creators?
About halfway through Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, a demon devours an entire office of telemarketers. Trapped in the voicemail line, the demon Hastur snaps up his first opportunity to escape. When a disenchanted salesperson named Lisa Morrow calls, her entire workplace is swallowed up in a Lord of Hell’s quest for revenge.
When the office stops its calls, a tide of “low-grade goodness” sweeps over the nation. For now, at least, there’ll be some peace and quiet.
The scene is rich in dark humor, and the drudgery of saleswork is not ignored. Still, a part of me flinched as I read it. I knew the joke was aimed at the profession, not the person. But I’ve known people who spend their days making calls not unlike Lisa Morrow’s. And I know their deaths would not be humorous.
They’re just doing their jobs, however horrible those jobs may be. Many are finding a way to tolerate the contradiction between their job description and their beliefs, and they’re longing for some way to escape the cognitive dissonance.
How much choice does it require to become a monster? How much can individuals be separated from the machine, and how much can individuals participate in a monstrosity without becoming a monster themselves?
In the first episode of The Good Place, Eleanor has arrived in the afterlife with a false history attached. Everyone assumes she lived as Eleanor Shellstrop, death row lawyer and human rights advocate. But she was really Eleanor Shellstrop, expert defrauder and drug sales associate. When Eleanor admits the truth to her soulmate Chidi, the scene flashes back to her first day on the job.
Eleanor’s boss attempts to explain that the product is “technically chalk” and “technically doesn’t work.”
But Eleanor interrupts him. “You need me to lie to old people and scare them into buying fake medicine. I get it, man. Which one’s my desk?”
When the audience returns to Eleanor in the afterlife, we see Chidi reeling from the revelation. A philosophy professor, Chidi is gobsmacked that Eleanor not only defrauded the elderly but the elderly and sick.
“But I was very good at it,” she says. “I was the top salesperson, five years running.”
“Okay, but that’s worse. You do get how that’s worse, right?” Chidi stutters back.
How much choice does it require to become a monster? How many choices make “monster” more than just a label on a nametag?
Monster, we know, is a term reserved for the depraved. When I try to imagine “monster” as a job description, the great dictators of history come to mind: a Hitler, a Stalin, some tyrant who spends their days plotting others’ anguish. These monsters are deeply aware that monsters can repopulate themselves, bit by bit. The more others participate in the monstrosity, the more the monstrosity grows.
How much choice does it require to become a monster? How do you stop someone else from promoting themselves to monster?
In Luke 8, Jesus asks a demon-possessed man his name. In his Lenten comments on the passage, N.T. Wright translates the man’s response in startlingly modern terms: “Regiment.” Not legion, the familiar Roman word usually placed in that spot. But the scholar chooses regiment, just to shake today’s readers into the military associations every early reader would have heard immediately. The man is naming his tormentors in the language of the “well equipped, professionally trained killers” he knows so well.
“Some have speculated that [the man’s] condition had been brought on by the trauma of seeing soldiers trampling through his country, polluting it with their pagan ways, crushing rebellions with their brutality,” Wright writes.
When the demon-possessed man tries to name his tormentors, he cloaks them in the title for the monsters he knew—the monsters he has, more than likely, seen at work in his own community.
Finishing his notes on Luke 8, not quite ready to move towards the miracles of Luke 9, Wright asks: “How do you pray inside a story like that?”
How much choice does it require to become a monster? How do you name the monsters inside, outside, around, and still somehow escape the pull of participation?
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I’ve read a little before about how organizations can be criminal or cruel without each worker, being a cog in its machine, really seeing or understanding what it is they’re part of. It’s a frighteningly grey way to look at things, because it forces us to ask what we ourselves might do when faced with the same.
Ooh, a lovely speculative piece with some delightful questions (and even more delightfully unanswered, or at best, answered vaguely). I think we too often like to look around us for monsters. We are quick to recognize or categorize “others” as “monsters.” Less often do we actually turn the lens on ourselves. This piece is a nice little reflex hammer to that end.