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.

Why the Academy Hates Talking About Sex

Several years out of the closet and into the ivory tower has taught me at least one thing.

The academy hates talking about sex.

For all of the hysteria surrounding a supposed left-wing agenda corrupting the minds of youth and poisoning them with thoughts of libertinism and women’s and gender studies, academic departments across most universities tend to be very uncomfortable, regressive, and even prudish about sex. Sure, it comes up as a political topic. It arises in the study of cultural artifacts. But in the actual topics of analysis and dissemination, sex is conspicuously absent, suppressed even, as those who dare to broach the topic risk being devalued as “unprofessional,” “erratic,” “prurient,” or, perhaps most damaging of all, “unobjective.”

Right now, sex cannot arise as a genuine phenomenon of inquiry because the discourse of academic culture precludes it on the basis of its extreme personalism. Very few people can speak about sex merely objectively – our very bodies and the passions they house make that impossible. Thus, in order to discuss sex, we discuss sex-uality (the concept itself an abstraction), and invent ways to talk about sex while making sex itself – fucking, sucking, touching, tasting, writhing, convulsing, sweating, heaving, breathing, pulsing, thrusting, throbbing, flushing, nudity, genitals, pleasure, orgasms – invisible. But we run into a paradox with this censuring. By striving to shield our objectivity from the passions these issues stir, we become staunchly un-objective. Jean Baudrillard once noted that what we call “obscenity” – that which polite and civilized academic culture attempts to suppress – is itself actually an objectivity, in the visible. [1] Abstractions shield us from the visible, and let us pretend to be objective in the invisible.

This bothers me, not because of some pedantic concern about epistemology or some prurient desire to raunch up the classroom. It bothers me because this invisibility literally kills people, and the people it kills the most are women, queer people, and vulnerable minorities across the board.

It kills women daily when invisibility about the “visible” features of women’s sex lives, physiological realities, etc. takes over policy making decisions, leaving the public only abstract ways to deal with questions of women’s reproductive health, access to family planning, and abortion services.

It kills LGBTQ persons daily, even as it did in the 80’s, when forced invisibility about the sex lives of gay men led to silence, inaction, and the intense stigmatization of those dying from AIDS by the thousands. Even today, efforts to combat the spread of HIV through community outreach, PrEP, and educational programs find themselves stymied by social stigma, indecision, apathy, and even malice by those in government.

I could go on.

There’s this “gap” between sex as a topic and sex as a phenomenon. Sex as a topic talks about the biological and neurological aspects of sex, and gets into how sex forms identities, impacts communities, and even how it influences the way we relate to people. It even tells us how it affects the way we read a book. But what sex as a topic does not do is point us, teach us, and guide us into fuller ways of knowing – and experiencing – the realities that underwrite and give meaning to sex. This gap is the source of the endless disconnect between the theoretical, moral, and academic dimensions of sex, and the “real” dimensions of sex. This is why theology, philosophy, and the greater portion of the constructive humanities can only address “sexuality,” and rarely if ever the actual sex lives of actual people, and even more rarely, doing that well.

A 2002 documentary film about the late philosopher* Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, featured a seemingly mundane (in my opinion, inane) question concerning past philosophers: “If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher – Heidegger, or Kant, or Hegel – what would you like to see in it?”

His response is revealing.

Their sex lives. Pourquoi? I’d love to hear about something they refuse to talk about. Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work? Why have they erased their private lives from their work or never talked about anything personal? There is nothing more important in their private life than love. I’m not talking about making a porno film about Hegel or Heidegger. I want them to speak about the part that love plays in their lives. [2]

Derrida Hegel Heidegger

I don’t think anyone is, Jacques. I don’t think anyone is at all.

I may have gone into the ivory tower straight out of the closet, but in reality, the ivory tower is itself a form of closet. I cannot exist in the academy if I am visible in my reality. I must strive to appear (to simulate) an asexual frame of mind, placing the queerness of my own sex life – along with the queerness of actual asexual individuals – under erasure for the sake of “objectivity” that is really not an “objectivity” toward anything visible or real. This is what philosophers have done for centuries, and what philosophers do, so too will the rest of the academy follow.

What I seek to do is to do theory as a sexual person. I seek to embrace the so-called “obscenity” of the visible and real and totally fuck up the pretense between the distinction between objective and subjective. I want to talk about actual sex and the knowledge that it discloses. I want to begin a foundation for an actual sexual phenomenology that queers, that fucks, that shocks the so-called phenomenologies of straight white men and their so-called sex lives (and conspicuous lacks thereof).

I came out of the closet too many times to trap myself in the ivory tower.

Heidegger Hegel

The porno pairing that Jacques Derrida was allegedly not talking about

  • I have serious doubts that Derrida himself would have been comfortable or accepting of the title of “philosopher.” He has noted on several occasions the impossibility of doing philosophy, and the way that the term itself relates specifically to the tradition of metaphysics in the Western tradition. One may argue that he’s a Socratic anti-philosopher. In any case, one cannot do any semblance of justice to Derrida without making such a disclaimer.

Sources:

[1] Mike Gane, ed. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. New York: Routledge, 1993. 60, 62.

[2] Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Derrida. Zeitgeist Films, 2002.