Rethinking the Banality of Evil


15984617_303We live in a day and age in which we risk several lethal mistakes when it comes to the way we handle the question of evil and our response to it. We expect it to come from identifiable monsters, as we seem incapable and unwilling to find that kind of evil lurking in our own homes, churches, schools, and neighborhoods. “Normal” is a dangerous category in that it both incubates evil patterns and numbs us to their actions until it’s too late (I’ve already written about this). Because I want us to be able to fundamentally reassess our understanding and expectations of moral responsibility, and thus to increase our capacity and desire to choose what is good and resist what is evil, I want to examine the “banality of evil” as a warning to any modern society whose populace is seduced into “normality” of thought, habit, and feeling. I fear that we are so seduced, and that are so in increasingly violent ways. But in November 2017, the New York Times published an article describing the daily life white nationalist, focusing on (I would argue, fetishizing) the normality of his life. I believe this approach to understanding the banality of evil is wrong, and that we have to re-think what we mean by the banality of evil.

In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, one of the greatest insights into evil arose through the social philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She herself was a student of Martin Heidegger, a woman of Jewish heritage who found herself having to survive the Shoah by leaving Germany in 1933, before arriving in New York in 1941. In 1961, she reported on the trial Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Observing his milquetoast character defined by his lack of any depth of thought, his tendency merely to follow orders, and his crippling lack of communicational skills as evidenced by his overuse of officially-sanctioned language and ideological platitudes, Arendt courted a provocative idea, one that she called “the banality of evil.” [1]

To understand how provocative it is, first, we must understand that modernity has its own theodicy. I would argue that our entire understanding of the ontology of science and technology is the enactment of this theodicy, especially when enacted in the context of capitalist ideology. The science of biology, especially, does not exist as an apolitical cumulation of facts concerning the phenomenon of life, but exists itself as a power discourse meant to legitimate instances of evil found in both nature and the will. Early evolutionary theories provided a pathogenesis of the evil of particular illnesses, social problems, and geopolitical structures. Racial theories, eugenics, socio-sexual deviations, etc. came to be seen, not as theo-ethical issues, but as medical issues as biology and medical science promised a remedy. Even evil behaviors came to arise from a biological cause, as the racial pseudo-science of the 19th century and Nazi Germany proves. Biology, when used as a reductive ideological system meant to describe the entirety of human life and experience, functions as a theodicy. It literally provides the justification for evil.

We also can’t understand how provocative Arendt’s case is without understanding a little about Kantian ethics. The 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed the idea of “radical evil,” [2] that is, the notion that evil doesn’t exist out of an express desire to be or act in an evil manner, but in a fundamental perversion of the heart that makes human beings prefer evil out of self-love. Evil doesn’t really have a “cause” (a tenet that echoes Augustine, who taught that finding a cause of evil is vanity, as evil doesn’t have an “efficient cause,” but rather a “deficient cause.” Evil stems from a lack of ontology and intelligibility. There’s nothing “there.” It’s a void). We simply have the freedom to accept what is good, or to accept what is bad. The problem of evil doesn’t command an understanding – the problem of evil commands a choice.

Eichmann,_AdolfWhat perplexed Arendt when faced with Eichmann was that we was so goddamn normal. What haunted her mind was the way in which Eichmann, and so many like him in Nazi Germany, committed such great acts of evil precisely through a failure to meaningfully choose at all. Eichmann didn’t appear to have chosen evil, anymore than he appeared to have authentically chosen good. He lacked the critical capacity or desire to exercise any bit of his personal moral freedom. Since he was no psychopath, nor mentally ill, he had his freedom, but in the course of fulfilling his duties for the Nazi state, convinced himself that he bore no moral responsibility for what his country did. Like Pontius Pilate, he was able to mentally wash his hands of innocent blood while simultaneously spilling it.

This observation, that Eichmann was astonishingly and boringly normal, is what caused such great scandal to the proponents of the legal system tasked with prosecuting a man responsible for innumerable deaths. Her critics have accused her of diluting the moral weight of Eichmann’s character and actions, taken her to task for overstating his normality, and downplaying the darkness of his character and life.

That criticism is just as alive and well in the criticism of the New York Times article.

I argue that any close understanding of what Arendt meant by assessing evil as banal means that we must be on guard against normalizing forces that could easily sedate us into behaving as mundanely malicious mild-mannered moral monsters. That Eichmann was an insidious anti-Semite, an enthusiastic fanatic of Nazi ideology, and a man stewed in murderous hatred does not negate the normality undergirding the contours of his life and character. In the age of Trump, I’ve met too many “normal people” more than willing to enable a racist, sexist, xenophobic, neo-fascist, authoritarian figure to think that it takes a willful and knowing choosing of evil in order for people to act and commit evil. Normality doesn’t downplay evil. The truest evils committed are by our next door neighbors, not by psychopaths with bloodlust.

Does the insistence of showing evil people to be monsters not, after all, achieve a sort of social distancing? Are we not able to project and deflect our social, collective ills onto such individuals and wash our own hands of innocent blood, all while our systems of normality continue to spill that same innocent blood? Does not understanding the banality of evil help us to identify and disrupt the murderous machinations of normality?

The value that comes from exploring the banality of evil is that it enables us to critically and piercingly engage in theo-ethical reflection on the social, political, and cultural systems that surround us whose “normality” conceals their murderous foundations. What it does not – or should not – do is allow us to fetishize the normality of those who enact the latent murderousness of those systems. Such fetishization goes the opposite direction: instead of allowing us to critically reflect on lethal normality, it causes us to accept and accustom ourselves to the very lethality of normality.

SS-auxiliaries-poses-at-a-resort-for-Auschwitz-personnel.-From-laughing-at-Auschwitz-c.-1942

The photo above is one of the most chilling photographs I’ve ever seen. The individuals in it are the clerical and administrative staff at Auschwitz. There’s nothing monstrous about their appearance. They’re smiling, laughing, posing, playing the accordion, enjoying a sort of workplace bonhomie. But this photograph alone doesn’t tell me anything about evil. Once I know who they are, where they work, and what happened in that place, then the picture reveals its chilling disclosure. Yes, it’s normal. Where’s the evil? Within that very normality. But I don’t know this until I know about who they are and what they’ve done.

The New York Times article, and the narrative about social evils that we replay every damn day in our own communities and neighborhoods, suggest that only monsters act like monsters. Racism only exists in the bigoted hearts of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk, not in the very structure and structures of normality itself. Evil can only be evil if it’s apparent. We dilute, justify, and ignore evil that comes in the guise of the normal. The answer isn’t to look at someone we know to be a monster and, without moral or ethical context, show how normal they really are. We look at how normal they are, and use what we see to sharpen our moral and ethical abilities.

Reflecting on evil as “banal” encourages us to find the moral contagion within normality – not to find the normality within the moral contagion.

 

[1] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Viking Press, 1963.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone and Critique of Practical Reason.