Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Banality of Evil 2

Arising from the fiery exchanges among the comments on my previous post, here is some clarification. Seeing banality in Eichmann and concluding there is some deep connection between banality and evil is like seeing a man with a red hat catch a fish and concluding there is some intrinsic connection between manness, red hatness and fish catching. Furthermore, as CaptainB points out, with his usual erudition and wisdom, Eichmann was not really that banal; Arendt was being superficial. But, behind all this, lies the superstition that we can find a key that will unlock the problem of evil and, somehow, 'cure' the condition. In order to do this, we must first diminish evil into something manageable, by, for example, classifying it as 'banal'. Another, more common, way is to classify it as dwelling in society; the individual, in this case, is innocent until corrupted. This is a very romantic view, inspired, essentially, by Rousseau. It is also wildly illogical since it evades the question of how evil found its way into society in the first place. I covered all this almost ten years ago in my review of Gitta Sereny's deeply deluded book Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell.

23 comments:

  1. But, behind all this, lies the superstition that we can find a key that will unlock the problem of evil and, somehow, 'cure' the condition. In order to do this, we must first diminish evil into something manageable, by, for example, classifying it as 'banal'.

    I'm not sure. Often, it strikes me as more to do with rituals that make clear we can never "unlock" or "cure" evil. We cannot judge evil, but after ritually purging it we can and do judge the nasty loser in the dock. This is, surely, one of the main purposes of any war crimes trial. Not for nothing do evil and pride usually go together. We use forensic legal process to break the ego of the evil-doer so that - ritually, anyway - he will come to see himself as society sees him, a grey, insignificant nobody.

    Of course, this assumes we know what evil is. Do we? I wonder.

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  2. We know it when we see it.

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  3. To me, there is an intrinsic paradox in calling evil "banal", or vice versa. This reminds me of Shakespeare's Angelo in Measure for Measure; he questions his urges and, therefore, his awareness is such that he is conscious of his own inner evil. This self-awareness, in my opinion, bolsters his evil - he acknowledges it, yet consciously ignores it.

    This might lead us to believe that evil only exists beyond the simplistic or commonplace. Indeed, everyday petty crime is replaced in the media by the non-commonplace, because this attracts further attention, and because the motives are dubbed unquestionable, and, therefore, evil.

    Again, true "evil" can only exist beyond the banal.

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  4. I think there is a very thin line between a kind of absolute wisdom & its attendant absolute love, and a wisdom that turns in upon itself and becomes contempt. To use an old & not necessarily defunct philosophical lens, Satan or Evil as an embodies entity is quite a simple intellectual error … the creation of self as a point of certainty apart from existence, & if this pushed to its nth we arrive with absolute evil. Also because this is a false state it needs actions to sustain the illusion of its own self-imagined reality- to persuade itself of itself.
    There’s an Indian writer/sage, Aurobindo, who writes, "...the ego must be crucified…But the Titan will have nothing of this; it is all too great & subtle for his comprehension. His instincts call for a visible, tangible mastery & a sensational domination."

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  5. I think the reason Arendt's thesis is so attractive is we know Germany was modern and enlightened and so many of us can't get their heads around evil flowing directly from modern, enlightened thinking. It is easy to dismiss blood-soaked Eastern Europe as trapped in the theocratic superstitions of the Middle Ages or China and Cambodia as forbidding and inscrutable, but the land of Beethoven and Schiller? So, enter the mindless bureaucrat who pushes paper without looking at what the paper says. That's the ticket! We all know that if the bureaucrat took the time to study his rational materialism carefully, he would of course rise up in heroic resistance.

    Although there is overwhelming evidence that the Nazis enjoyed widespread, critical support in the universities and across the German (and European) intellectual community, it is amazing the hoops so many modern secularists will jump through to minimize all that and insist it all stemmed from a revival of Odin and Thor. I love to go a-wandering...

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  6. yes, first there was evil, then society was built around it. you think it came from without, you might be thinking of weevil.

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  7. River of DeceitJuly 19, 2007 12:31 pm

    I don't agree that saying evil is banal is somehow saying it can be managed. Quite the opposite. I thought it meant that everyone was capable of being evil every day without realising it. So if evil is all-pervasive in that sense there is no way it can be managed.

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  8. I fail to see how evil can be banal – that is surely a non sequitur? Fiction, as usual, can provide a helpful answer, and although not a popular as young H Potter perhaps, it is hardly a dusty tome: Lionel Shriver's "We need to talk about Kevin" lays it out on a slab.

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  9. No, Ian, I didn't say it came from without, quite the opposite, I say it comes from within the individual. It's called original sin. And, River, that's not what Arendt said - she said evil was a banality because it involved no thought. This is ridiculous

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  10. suffering is embedded in life - no life is free of it; and many are little but.

    the will to inflict suffering is particularly strong in human beings - though cats toy with their prey, it doesn't look like anything we'd call cruelty is the motive. i suppose there are versions of torture etc. in the animal kingdom but it feels qualitatively different to me, the way human beings like to torture each other.

    i think any concept of 'evil' as more than 'socially undesirable' has to rest on some sort of 'religious' apprehension, a sense that morality is metaphysical before it is sociological. One doesn't need any idea of 'god' for this, just a sense that evil is an ontological presence. Without that, i think you'd have to accept 'evil' as just a fancy name for 'what we happen to strongly dislike', as i seem to remember Nietzsche did; which to me is untenable.

    i suppose chaps like Dawkins would say evil is anything that is detrimental to our genes, or something similar.

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  11. They would say that because they are idiotic eunuchs, Elberry. A variation on that Dostoevsky Dmitri Karamazov line-"Man is braod, too broad even. I would narrow him down."

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  12. ...How evil got into society in the first place...

    Precisely. And it's not too hard to peel back the layers and find the ultimate source.

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  13. I think Arendt may have been alluding to something peculiarly modern when she used the phrase "the banality of evil". That is, modern organisation, modern technology and of course bureaucracy have all contributed to an increasing separation between our actions and their moral significance. She says: "Modernity did not make people more cruel; it only invented a way in which cruel things could be done by non-cruel people." I don't think Eichmann was thoughtless, rather he was insensitive to what he was doing. He was insensitive because he could act at a distance. The physical and psychological distance neutralised the moral content of his actions. Murdering became a bureaucratic function. And bureacracy is banal. Today, it is even easier to act at a distance with every more sophisticated technology. The Gulf Wars are good examples of this: even the guys in the desert fighting the war rarely had to look their victims in the eye. As for the leaders, they could wipe out a town from a bar many thousands of miles away. Morality loses its impact in these situations and it becomes very easy to commit appalling acts. Sorry, bit of a rambling comment. Don't have time to refine my argument.

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  14. Susan B., disappointed,July 19, 2007 3:47 pm

    Straw-man arguments are very easy to knock down. If, Bryan, you're changing Arendt's nuanced take on evil occurring in banal circumstances, aided by people who are not themselves especially evil, into an argument that Evil is Evil and Evil is Bad, of course you'll win. That wasn't her argument, it's yours.

    I'm with River of Deceit and Neil; I'm not with your "original sin" leveller of thought to Adam & Eve in the garden. That's so black and white and simplistic.

    But it's your blog, so if you wanna be right, be so. You can go shout it in the forest and I'm sure lots of trees will murmur in agreement.

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  15. surely one can suppose humanity to be integrally flawed (as is creation as a whole) and also agree with Forsyth?

    Funny, i'm reading a book about Milton on Eve at the moment, and see the Adam & Eve thing as actually v complex. Milton's take on 'evil' is in fact surprisingly sophisticated.

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  16. I don't like 'original sin', Bryan. Original sin is a human condition. Should we believe only humans are capable of evil or, put it another way, evil exists only in humans?

    Isn't it perhaps genetic? One day someone will isolate it and modify the evil gene away.

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  17. ah, elberry - I've just read yours. we're probably barking up the same tree.

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  18. Neil Forsyth wrote: "I think Arendt may have been alluding to something peculiarly modern when she used the phrase 'the banality of evil'."

    I'm not sure it is all that modern, Neil. Modernity has made it easier to accomplish and on a larger scale, that's all. Think of all the potentates of the classical world who commissioned the most awful deeds from hundreds of miles away. They too had bureaucracies to administer the killing-machines and count the spoils.

    I do hope original sin is given short shrift round here. It's a pernicious doctrine that has licensed countless mad men and bad men to inflict dreadful suffering. When Tibetan lamas first arrived in the West in numbers they were aghast and sorrowed at our penchant for wallowing in guilt and sackcloth. No thanks.

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  19. River of DeceitJuly 19, 2007 5:24 pm

    If the whole arguement is about whether all evil is banal then i'm sure most people would agree that's shite. I think Arendt's point is that alot of evil is done banally whereas in others like Ted Bundy it's done with relish.

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  20. Although there is overwhelming evidence that the Nazis enjoyed widespread, critical support in the universities and across the German (and European) intellectual community, it is amazing the hoops so many modern secularists will jump through to minimize all that and insist it all stemmed from a revival of Odin and Thor. I love to go a-wandering...

    It's amazing also to see the hoops that Christians will jump through to minimize the extent that many of Hitlers willing executioners were churchgoers.

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  21. ba·nal –adjective devoid of freshness or originality; hackneyed; trite:

    Why shouldn't evil be banal? Or goodness, for that matter? As it is said, there is nothing new under the sun. People are creatures of habit, and human history has worn many well traveled paths that lead to good as well as evil. Why do we pay so much homage to originality to want to associate its opposite with evil?

    Evil often takes original forms, as with charismatic fiends like Charles Manson or Jim Jones, but more often it follows a dreary script, as with the wife-beater next door.

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  22. You're trying to uphold two not especially useful words (in this context): 1. banal and 2. evil.

    Neither offer any proper explanation of either Eichmann or the regime he served.

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  23. I must object, Susan. First, the doctrine of Original Sin is neither simplsitic nor merely black and white - except in so far as the mixture of black and white gived us an infinite number of shades of gray. The mystery the doctrine touches upon - and that Bryan notes - is that evil has its origin in free choice. It is motivated, not simply caused. I have known people who have done what they themselves thought to be wrong precisely because it was wrong. Arendt, I think, had a point, up to a point. Evil is often banal and may even usually have a banal dimension. But it is not only banal and it isn't always banal. Eichmann may have chosen to regard what he was doing as mere bureaucratic procedure, but that is precisely the point: He chose to see it that way.

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