The Banality of Evil, Again | Becoming interested in the terrifyingly mundane life of our enemies

Philosophers since Aristotle have been asking "what is the good life"? While ethics may be ascribed to philosophy, this question is not relegated to strictly philosophical conversations. Ethics asks questions about what is good, the kinds of questions we have a tenuous relationship with in the postmodern world. The easier question seems to be: what is evil, or dangerous?

You won't have to look hard to find people deciding what is evil, and no further to find us demonizing that Other, whoever they might be. This demonization is rooted in fear, but when we can name it, and distance ourselves from it, we create a kind of safety for ourselves. And, we can think of the Other’s weaknesses instead of our own. Usually we spend time with people who see the same monsters we do so that we don’t have to feel crazy, to feel powerful by number, to mourn in the same ways, or to have an identity—maybe all of these things. This is important. We have to feel safe in order to participate in the world (whether our lack of security is actual or perceived, it doesn't matter to the body, it still goes into defense mode).

Feeling safe, though of fundamental importance, carries with it some problematic elements. This phenomenon can be no better described, I think, than by the life and work of German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt.

After her people were slaughtered by the Nazi regime, Hannah Arendt, who was living and teaching in New York, went to the new Israeli state to watch and report on the Adolph Eichmann trials for the New Yorker (read some of what she wrote here). She received a lot of flack for her reporting, particularly from her own people, undoubtedly from the people who had every right to be in pain, to be angry. They were angry at her because she said something to the affect of: "this man is so boring and not like the devil I expected to see. He is a normal man who speaks of obedience as his highest value, and goes home and has dinner with his wife and children." Suffice it to say, finding him to be so entrenched in his culture, so normal, the atrocities he spoke about committing, while defending why he did them was evidence of something to Arendt, and became the birthplace of her philosophy of the banality of evil.

Simply defined, the Banality of Evil states that when we grow so accustomed to the language, values, and beliefs of a homogenous group, even the most devilish of things become normal to us. Racism, money in politics, misogyny, politics as usual, fear & warmongering, etc. Everyone sees some kind of devilish evil, and many of us are blind to a whole slew of normal evils.

The pushback she received from the Jewish community was for good reason. Her article is adeptly observant and seemingly unemotional. But it also reads historically as if Hannah did not need to be angry, because that was too obvious. She wanted more than that. Who, with a heart, isn’t angry about the slaughtering of millions of Jewish people? Adolf Eichmann, for one. And how is that possible?

I think we begin to see how her philosophy has relevance in this moment.

What is most interesting to me in our current moment is that there are rather distinct camps, conventions, if you will, filled with human beings. If we were to question one another with interest about how we arrived here, we would find humans. And we would probably (and during the holiday season we do) find deep offense. Our tendency, like the German Jews, would be to hang the Adolf Eichmann's of our day, and we would have many available justifications for doing so, to allay any guilt we might have about our quid pro quo return to violence.

Hannah’s vision was rooted in an ethical vision for the world. But possessing truth is different than a journey towards inhabiting truth. As philosophers often desire, she wanted to understand, but in this case her life and social standing where at stake. For Hannah, what one can assume only began with fear and anger, turned into inquiry. Perhaps one of the holiest, spirit-inspired transformations. Inquiry is a middle space. It is both a process and a solution. It doesn't condone, it presses in. It doesn't condemn, it proceeds with hope for healing. Inquiry itself seems to be a self-possessed form of truth, an belief that there is more here to understand, and that possession of truth does not equal effective communication of truth. (More on this point in a later article where I discuss Soren Kierkegaard and his philosophy of truth-communicating).

The philosophy of the Banality of Evil is helpful because, first, it puts everything on the table: if all evil is normalized in a culture, how am I complicit? And second, if someone else is committing an atrocity which seems normal to them, it encourages me to ask how did this become normal? What was your experience like, that this is not a self-evident to you? How can something so monstrous to me, be experienced with such banality by you?

On an individual, one-to-one level, we might call this empathy. On a grander scale, we might call it something like engaged multiculturalism. We can't have either of these things until we get close to one another. And we can't get close until we stop so heavily defending ourselves by attacking the Other. In order to make peace and justice reign, we have to listen, particularly to the people who are the most absurd to us. But we also have to feel safe, and have a space for our anger. We begin to see why real peacemaking is not so simple a task.

During this polarized time, we need to find and or create spaces where we can practice the art of inquiry. The art. I'll remind you why the stereotype of the suffering artist exists: the character required to do creative work isn't acceptance, disengagement, approval, or apathy, it is activism, strength, deep listening and resilience. To hold a long and loving space for the Other isn't something we have to do, that culture supports, or that often gets included in our individualistic notion of the good life. But, what if our ethics are always communal? What if we can't understand the good life apart from one another? What if our evil grows when we are apart, not challenged in our conceptions of “normalcy”?

What if the practice of “multiculturalism” is both the healing process and the good life? When lives and cultures intermingle, when meaning has to be made together, when everyone has to be considered, it is hard work—but if we do that hard work on the front end, we have less messes to clean up when our segregation leads to cultures where defensive norms become banal to us, and demonized by them. As Henri Nouwen has so beautifully put it, “it is by our wounds we are healed.”

And that's when people start to get frustrated again, and defensive. He's guilty! She's guilty! They are the problem. And, of course, this might be true, in many cases. However, he/she/they are here. Many of us deal with frustration pretend like the people we don’t like don’t exist, but we don’t do ourselves or our communities any kind of favors by delaying the possible conflicts of interests, the need for translators, the long, loving look at something we don’t understand. Not to mention, it is a terrible use of privilege.

It is usually the same people who take on the brunt of this work, people who have suffered violence deeply already. People who are forced to listen to the prevailing perspective, because it is the one with power. Hannah Arendt is a prime example of this. Sometimes it isn't until you see the deep atrocity of the world, until you suffer from it, until you lose everything, that you can ask the kinds of questions and extend the kind of forgiveness that leads to healing. I am deeply sorry about this reality. Thank you, to those who have done this deep listening, even when they could or should have retreated to a safe place. You are an inspiration to all of us. Hannah was generous with Adolf Eichmann, and there are many of you who practice radical generosity even in the face of great evil.

This is an immensely practical approach. A time has come where stiff-arming politics and religion at the dinner table is no longer a legitimate approach. Using privilege to suppress topics of relevance to people’s physical and societal survival is not effective or loving. This does not, of course, mean attacking people we disagree with is the alternative. Inquiry, once again, is active, difficult, and loving. Often when we think about philosophy, we think it is that idealistic, abstract, pie-in-the-sky thinking. But, this is a question of what to do and how to do it and what attitude to bring. Perhaps most importantly, what questions to ask.

So, my questions, which are simply a derivative of Hannah's questions, are: Will we distance, demonize and allow further entrenchment to happen? Or will we do the hard work to say how did we get here? Why are we choosing the approach we are choosing? Who are you? What culture made you? Made me? Made us? Will scapegoating ever solve the problem? Where is your suffering?

Have your feelings. Have your family or supportive community. You need it. I need it. But, that's not a solution. And ultimately, it's not even safe. Safety allows us to enter into the vulnerability of relationship, where we are challenged to see things from perspective not our own, where we discern who's perspective will guide the moment we are in, where we realize the key moments in which our perspective was formed into what it is right now.

In Hannah’s work and life, I hear the empathetic, compassionate and truth-naming words of another Jew: Father forgive (us), for (we) know not what (we) do.

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