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Hannah Arendt on the Banality of Evil

Digital Collage by Shreya Sharma

One of the most important interventions in the field of existentialist ethics has been Hannah Arendt’s (1906-75) concept of the banality of evil, which formed the core of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. It contained Arendt’s reports of the trial in 1969 of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust during WWII. As a Jew who had taken refuge in New York from Nazi Germany, Arendt was struck by the seeming “everydayness” of Eichmann. Far from reflecting the monstrousness of his genocidal war crimes, Eichmann comported himself like any other person in the street, and spoke of his actions, during the trial, with shocking mundanity--he was just following his superiors’ orders, and getting the job done. The horribleness of his actions was something Eichmann just couldn’t see, and this incapability to be empathetic towards those who suffered the consequences of his actions, or this “disconnect from reality”, in Arendt’s words, was caused by a peculiar bureaucratic mechanism of totalitarian governments, which she called “the rule of Nobody” and which “makes functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus...dehumanizes them.” Arendt pointed out that real evil, contrary to our commonsense perceptions of it, is far from ostentatiously demonic; it doesn’t even have to come from a perverse delight in heinous acts. It comes instead from our falling victim to the manipulation by oppressive political systems of our thinking and judgement, which causes us to normalize the unthinkable.

Philosophical precedents of Arendt’s theory include St. Augustine of Hippo’s notion that evil is not a force, but rather an outcome of a lack of goodness (c. 350 AD), and Thomas Aquinas’ celebrated characterization of evil as a lack of something, rather than a thing in itself (in his work Disputed Questions on Evil, written in the 1200s). Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil proved to be quite controversial when her book was first published. Since the word “banal” was misinterpreted by certain critics, Arendt was accused of trivializing the evilness of the Holocaust and of the Nazis behind it. But also, the idea that evil wasn’t a quality certain “monstrous” people possessed, but rather an orientation that could emerge in potentially anybody, was admittedly quite radical, not to mention discomfiting. Three months after the Eichmann trial, psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment at Yale that tested obedience to authority figures, in which the test subjects were asked to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity when their student got a task wrong. A large number of them administered shocks that they knew would cause excruciating pain, without guilt, all because the psychologist running the study had told them to. Similarly, in 1971, the academic world was scandalized by social scientist Philip Zimbardo’s infamously problematic Stanford Prison Experiment, in which (cis, mostly white, male) students were asked to roleplay as policemen and discipline the “prisoners” for a set duration, which they did with sickening displays of brutality, all under the justification of “following orders”.

As a concept, the banality of evil may be contrasted with the idea of “moral injury”, which refers to “the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct”. This notion comes from psychological studies on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in ex-military officials, and is particularly helpful when we try to characterize exactly what was missing from the reactions of Eichmann, the test subjects of the Milgram experiment, or those of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This insidious warping of our ethical judgement, according to Arendt, is one of the most dangerous tools at the disposal of fascist regimes, and it is done via exposure to what she called the “holes of oblivion”, which we, post-Trump, now call “alternative facts”.

In 1964, Arendt eschewed her earlier talk about “radical evil” to say that there was only “radical good”. In other words, evil (since it defies thought) doesn’t have any depth, but only extremes, and so it can never be radical. Doing good, however, is a product of thought, which alone lends an act any depth, and so only good may be truly radical. Similarly, for Arendt, the banal nature of most acts of evil wasn’t an excuse to stop being horrified at them. Instead, she wanted to suggest the futility of a black-and-white (and decidedly Christian, in origin) morality that labels those who commit evil deeds as “monsters” and shuns them as deviant and dangerous individuals. Evil, said Arendt, is something much closer home, since it is something we are all capable of, given persuasive enough circumstances. This is why anti-fascist politics, questioning one’s own complicity with evil systems, and the safeguarding of democratic regimes were so important to Arendt.

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