Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Banality of Evil?

Revisiting Eichmann's crimes, Holocaust historian Ulrich Herbert has this somewhat surprising reading of about Arendt's famous book title:

"Why did Arendt's catchphrase the "banality of evil" have such a resounding impact, when the image of the bureaucrat only partially corroborated with historical facts?
Simply because it was a catchphrase. On the one hand, it expressed the disappointment in the lack of magnitude, even if diabolical, which one would somehow expect from one of the most important organisers of the mass murders, given the millions of victims. On the other, it voiced a certain delayed sense of triumph in the observation: this great murderer, what a nobody! In Germany, however, the phrase readily corresponded with the image of the Nazis as "antisocial criminals". So the perpetrators were bureaucrats and cretins. This picture did not include the fact that the death squads were commanded by men with doctoral degrees, such as Otto Ohlendorf or Otto Rasch. "

Some random thoughts:

Arendt makes a point of the fact that Eichmann never killed anyone by his own hands. He could not therefore understand why he was even put on trial, let alone figure out what his guilt was. Her theory does not exonerate him. Quite the contrary. It takes systems to produce that kind of obedience and lack of proper curiosity and sympathy for fellow humans. Perhaps her book should have been entitled: The evil of banality. Since what she wants to show is that evil is not easily recognizable as a monstrous being. That is why genocides can happen again and again.

***

Arendt did not describe Eichmann's evil as banal. She described him as the very personification of banality: a mediocre bureaucrat with some organizational talent happy to serve those whom he considered rightly above him and positioned to give orders. He did not have an original thought in his mind and his language was replete was platitudes and cliches characteristic of a stunted mind. Yet this man could still assemble an efficient system of extermination. The mismatch between the ungraspable enormity of the evil he was responsible for, and the littleness of that man's mind and thinking, that is what Arendt meant by her "banality of evil".

She herself was not immune to banalities, considering her love affair with Heidegger; what could be more banal than a tryst between a comely awe-struck and spunky student and her much older and charismatic professor? The very stuff of Harlequin romance.

***

Some have attempted to define evil. Paul Ricoeur, for example, who wrote:

“Evil is, in the literal sense of the wo rd, perversion, that is, a reversal of the order that requires respect for law to be placed above inclination. It is a matter of a misuse of a free choice... The propensity for evil affects the use of freedom, the capacity to act out of duty – in short, the capacity for being autonomous.” ;

or Emmanuel Levinas:

"The essence of evil is its instrumental ambiguity.";

but the most effective paradigm for evil I read from -- not a philosopher, but -- a blogger writing about his son's suffering:

"As many of you already know, my second youngest son was born with Neurofibromatosis. NF is the perfect paradigm of evil. It is a tumor disorder in which the tumors grow along nerve fibers. Because nerve fibers are uniformly arrayed throughout the body, the tumors may appear anywhere and are usually so inextricably interwoven with the tissues of skin, organs and bone that removing them completely is impossible. That is how I see evil. It is inextricable in the fabric of humanity. What is truly important is how we try to deal with it."

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