4/06/2005

The De-Demonization of Evil: Banality, Arendt, Sartre

The phrase "the banality of evil" appears as the subtitle of Hannah Arendt's notorious report on the trial against Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal organizers of the Holocaust.3 Starting with the 1963 publication of Arendt's hugely controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the world which had not been preoccupied with the Holocaust in the 1950s suddenly sought to conceptualize the evil that had erupted in its midst.

In the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis' crimes against Europe's Jews had not been a central issue, but were treated as one among several offenses. As the first global media event, covered by over 400 journalists and broadcast nightly on radio and television, the Eichmann trial revealed that the German crimes "constituted an 'unmastered past' [not only for Germans or Jews but] for the rest of the world."4

Arendt's expression is found only in the final sentence of her book.. n her attempt to cut through the "word-and-thought-defying" manifestation of evil, Arendt described Eichmann as a man responsible for the deaths of millions yet distinct only in his blandness, his mediocrity, his averageness. Arendt investigated how a totalitarian state could turn seemingly ordinary citizens into criminals. In the course of this investigation, Arendt debunked the image of the demonic Nazi because this image prevented the badly needed analysis of the "total moral collapse" that had occurred in Germany during the war.

Arendt's phrase has entered the popular lexicon and fundamentally altered modern perceptions of evil. If Nazis had once been viewed as pathological or demonic monsters who committed evil for evil's sake, Arendt placed emphasis on the perplexing lack of personal hatred or direct animosity toward those whom the Nazis, with cold efficiency, dispatched to their deaths. Arendt showed that when combined with a peculiar lack of empathic imagination, obedience could yield terrifying results, and that the modern state provided structures for functionaries to commit evil without considering themselves morally corrupt.

Beyond the controversy over Arendt's book, there are thus several "afterlives" to the "banality of evil" thesis quite independent of Arendt's analysis. The investigation of the conditions for evil in modern society, and of detecting the "little Nazi within us," affected various fields beyond political theory and philosophy.8 The Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, for instance, conducted a series of experiments where average individuals were instructed to administer electroshocks to research subjects when the latter failed to perform simple tasks. These research "subjects," placed in cubicles not unlike the famous glass booth sheltering Eichmann from attacks by former victims during his trial, were paid actors who feigned physical pain when receiving the "electroshocks," which in reality carried no current. Milgram found that most individuals willingly administered near-lethal doses of electricity if such action was prescribed in the research guidelines: "After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine…: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process."9 In response to his amazement and the intense media storm over his experiments, Milgram's wife wryly remarked, "so there are a bunch of Eichmanns in New Haven."

In light of the grave misunderstandings prompted by the phrase, Arendt added an afterword to her book explaining that the "banality of evil" does not diminish guilt for the Nazis, but instead heightens their responsibility by prying their deeds from a quasi-theological and irrational realm (in which "evil" is frequently located) and placing them firmly into lived reality governed by human laws

Cabinet Magazine Online - The De-Demonization of Evil: Banality, Arendt, Sartre

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