Monday, January 28, 2008

The Banality of Evil

Here is an interesting post that touches on a question we examine here - the nature of people who do atrocious things to others, people who otherwise pass for normal. It is one of several recent posts commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, by Norman Geras, Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester.

He comments on Hanna Arndt's popularization of the phrase "the banality of evil." In a civil way, he points out that the evil she was talking about (the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi Adolph Eichmann) cannot possibly be described as "banal" (commonplace or trivial). He is certain she didn't even mean that, but rather meant that evildoers like Eichmann himself are banal.

Clear thinking to unconfuse sloppy thinking. Imagine the mental virus that has infected countless minds with the notion that even such horrific evil is merely (ho-hum) "banal."

Arendt's main thought was not in fact the banality of the evil, but rather the banality of the perpetrators of it. With reference to Eichmann, she spoke of the 'ludicrousness of the man'; she said that, like most others implicated in the crimes, he was 'neither perverted nor sadistic… [but] terribly and terrifyingly normal', and without 'any diabolical or demonic profundity'; what characterized him was 'sheer thoughtlessness' - or, as she put it in another piece ('Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture', Social Research 38, 1971), 'extraordinary shallowness' and a 'quite authentic inability to think'.

Oh, so Eichmann's problem was just that he was stupid? Why am I not surprized to hear an "intellectual" say that? So, he was normal, commonplace, and stupid. Not perverted. Not sadistic. Just normal, commonplace, and stupid.

In other words, no different than the common masses = what the clerical are fond of calling "the laity" (low ones) or the "vulgar."

Geras doesn't buy it. You'll have to read this excellent post yourself, because I'll just comment on a few of the highlights.

He then shows how this idea has spread to become the learned consensus, citing other authorities who say the same thing, "that, by and large, the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide were 'normal' people, ordinary human beings... Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers 'by nature', and so forth," that they represented "an ordinary cross section of people, most of whom would have passed successfully through any standard set of psychological screening tests."

Let us try to get our minds around this teaching: the perpetrators did these abnormal things but were not abnormal; they did these sadistic things but were not sadistic; they did these brutal things but were not brutal; they murdered people by the thousands just for being the wrong kind but had no murderous nature; they did these fiendish and monstrous things but were not evil monsters.

Notice the same theme in what they say about malignant narcissists?

Then Geras sums up "the bad news we have to come to terms with" about people who do such things, in a quote of Elie Weisel:

Yes, it is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one's garden and water one's flowers but two steps away from barbed wire... To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh - and still fulfil regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer.

I made the same point just a few days ago in Do Narcisssists Have a Conscience?

Geras responds to this modern thesis:

[It] seems to me to understate the amount of sheer sadism and cruelty there in fact was in the implementation of that horror. Correspondingly, the accent put by both of those theses on social and administrative structures in easing the path of human conscience towards barbarity gives insufficient weight to - where it does not altogether deny - those human-natural impulses of cruelty, the actual enjoyment of the misfortunes of others, regularly unleashed when the usual restraining circumstances allow them to be.

Exactly. The devil comes out of some people when the usual restraints disappear. These people - the perpetrators of the Holocaust - didn't suddenly change. I have seen people pull this with my own two eyes. They didn't change; their true colors just suddenly showed. They always were chameleons. When the Devil came to town one day, he changed the rules (just like Hitler did) so that being good no longer paid and being bad did. They adapted, instantly, literally overnight as their angel-faced masks came off. How low did they go? They proved there is no bottom to how low they could go.

People like this are all around us. They look like the rest of us. But that doesn't make them normal, let alone people of goodwill.

I also have a wider theoretical misgiving about the emphasis on perpetrator normality: this is that it runs the risk of permitting the sociology and psychology which is involved in trying to understand what happened to displace the ethical perspective.

Then he shows how these authorities contradict themselves, claiming to attribute responsibility for their deeds to the perpetrators while, in effect, relieving them of it.

I believe that all the talk, in the relevant literature, of the normality of the perpetrators carries a danger of encouraging us to think: well, because of these psychological pressures, these social mechanisms or administrative structures, those patterns of internal rationalization and so on, what the perpetrators did is 'understandable'. But isn't there a sense in which, as Primo Levi wrote, one must refuse to understand? Or one must say: each and all of the factors - social, psychological or whatever - that tempted or pressured you, they are understandable; still, you made a choice or choices which you should not have made and which others did not make - you crossed the line.

Normality has an ethical meaning as well as social and psychological meanings. To participate in the mass murder and the torture of other human beings is, ethically, not normal but monstrous. What better definition of an abnormally cruel person than that he or she presided over or participated in abnormal cruelties?

Amen. Read the rest.

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At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is some post.

I'm going to be OT, sorry.

Wanted to point everyone to Joan Acocella's piece on poet Kahlil Gibran of "The Prophet" fame in the 1/7 'NYer Mag.' Of his seminal work, the article notes: "At times, [the narrator's] vagueness is such that you can't figure out what he means. If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely, that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you're dong, you needn't worry, because you're also doing the opposite. Such paradoxes, which Gibran had used for years to keep [his female patroness] out of bed, now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by ther seeming correction of conventional wisdom but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes."

Hmmm, sounds familiar...

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Kathy said...

I have noticed that too. People love to buy into that. It sounds so cool. People often call something exactly what it most ain't - as if to thus erase what it is.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous holywatersalt said...

The sad irony here for me is that I sent my NP Gibran's friend poem. Good God.

This is disturbing on so many levels. I sent it in the very beginning- maybe a plea....

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Kathy, I want to add why people buy into that. I really believe many, but not all, people are cowards. They are so happy that it did not happen to them but are not willing to defend the ones who are in trouble.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger sonicido said... is kinda fun to mess with them by doing the opposite of what their calculations have "told" them you would do...>:}

At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ho, hum. And my first love - a charming, psychopathic conman - gave me a beautifully-bound copy of "The Prophet" as a birthday present 35 years ago, when I was just 19 years of age. I've still got it on my bookshelves. Come to think of it, he probably nicked it.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Kathy said...

Woops, erin - it was that link to leftist political propaganda instead of a bio. Do they pay you guys to surf blogs and do this?

Maybe if you all scream it a billion more times in cyberspace, it will be true. D,ya think?

I guess that explains it, so we don't need my reply anymore either. It is gone now too.


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