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Banality of Evil

“Going along with the rest and wanting to say ‘we’ were quite enough to make the greatest of all crimes possible.” Hannah Arendt

This post title is an excerpt from Hannah Arendt’s report for the New Yorker on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Her description of Eichmann as an ordinary man, “…terribly and terrifyingly normal…” struck many as odd considering his role as the chief director of the Holocaust. In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” she makes various observations that won her both acclaim and condemnation. Many found her conclusions about the evils of totalitarianism as deriving from both the presumed elite and the easily manipulated mob harsh, despite her astute observations as to how and why it occurs.

Arendt did not dwell much on the philosophical topic of moral responsibility; she was empirically inclined and focused instead on her observation of people who were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “…dared to judge by themselves.”, thus deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “…live with themselves.” Sometimes even choosing to die rather than become complicit in evil, such ordinary people create “The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not; this strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”

What is not emphasized by Arendt is from where such evils as she wrote about arise. That is not a criticism as that was not the object or purpose of either her report about Eichmann’s trial or her book; it was already a question she understood answered by others, like Augustine, Aquinas, Aristotle, etc. who had concluded from empirical perspectives that evil arises from envy. It was Locke who defined that for humans a virtuous state of nature is devoid of such things as elitism, envy, or coercion; further, for a society to be considered to be in a virtuous state of nature it must embrace a polity that protects individuals against such things.

Arendt’s view of evil as a banality is quite insightful and unique, devoid of any fantastical concept as some kind of Marvel Comics’ evil superpower character. What it takes for someone to unwittingly embrace evil is simply not to think, just to accept and conform to whatever those in power, the elite or the mob say to do, that mindless desire to be part of the “we” and not be one of those that “…dared to judge by themselves.” This phenomenon seems to persist despite the resulting horrors like the Holocaust; it does not always result in such horrific extremes, but usually starts off with those seeking power to manipulate the mob to focus on someone to blame for whatever the crisis of the day happens to be, real or imagined.

What needs to be created is a sense of envy in order to create blame. Those who have this insatiable thirst for power usually rely on the pretense of providing some form of social justice, the ultimate anti-concept as Thomas Sowell so eloquently put it when he said “I never cease to be amazed at how often people throw around the lofty phrase ‘social justice’ without the slightest effort to define it. It cannot be defined because it is an attitude masquerading as a principle.”

This attitude creates all sorts of societal distortions as envy is a feeling of discontent and resentment of someone else’s possessions, qualities, or simply luck; this is exactly what the power monger wants to arouse, an irrational desire for that which belongs to someone else without the necessity to earn it. The target of the envy created is often a minority, like the Jews in Europe, the ethnic Chinese in SE Asia, prosperous African Americans, Armenians in Turkey, and now successful Asian and Hispanic Americans, or anyone who has achieved success or fortunate enough to benefit from their family that has. Again, Thomas Sowell has succinctly identified this trend when he observed that “There has now been created a world in which the success of others is a grievance, rather than an example.”

Consider the Seven Deadly Sins, which are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth; while the news is filled with stories about people who became overwhelmed with most of these sins, envy seems to go unnoticed while it in fact has become a virtue under its disguise as social justice. It’s alarming that much of the public buys into those narratives that seemingly on a daily basis promotes some new example of oppression by anyone deemed “privileged” in some way; it’s that “Going along…” that Arendt speaks to, the desire to be part of the “we” and to avoid being different for fear that you will be condemned as extremists, racists, homophobes, or whatever is the derogatory label of the day.

This lock step trend is supported by a supplicating media and defunct academia, suffocating any real civil discourse. While such behavior is trite, boorish and just plain “banal”, it is exactly what Arendt meant for people to understand; this attitude of envy that morphs into a social and political movement becomes the origin of totalitarianism. One of the consistent and perhaps most dangerous elements of such movements are the attacks and suppressions of free speech. We must never be afraid to speak out against such things because we modestly think of ourselves as just ordinary people, but remember that even ordinary people need to understand what George Orwell meant when he said “Even if you are a minority of one it does not make you wrong.”


Author: jvi7350

Politically I am an independent. While I tend to avoid labels, I consider myself a Libertarian. I find our politics to have deteriorated to a current state of ranting tribialism, and a growing disregard for individual rights; based on the axiom that silence is consent, I choose instead to speak out and therefore launched this blog.

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