Monday, July 4, 2011

The banality of evil

Thinking about my post below about Franz Kafka and noting Trisha's reference to the 'banality'  of criminals we prefer to disassociate ourselves from reminds me of Hannah Arendt, the influential German Jewish philosopher and her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. She observed at close quarters the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, kidnapped from a Buenos Aires street and taken to Jerusalem to stand accused of his crimes in the Holocaust.

Here is a link to some biographical and educational material about Arendt's life and work. Her notes on Eichmann and her subsequent book (revisited and reviewed here at Steve Reads) spoke of how easily a figure of such evil fitted into the world, how he seemed too ordinary to be evil, and in many ways the difference between he and we who think of ourselves as being outside of such capability are never as great, or as concrete as we think. It is an uncomfortable read, and resonant and disturbing in far wider contexts than war crimes.

Misuses of power and the exploitation of uneven power relationships are all around us. We stand righteous against bullying then watch reality television shows that ridicule people perceived as weaker than 'us' or just different. We ask how bullies are created then back politicians who exploit existing prejudices against the vulnerable (unemployed, beneficiaries) for electoral gain. We talk of our collective generosity then try to drive down the wages of the lowest paid among us, for the 'good of the country.' I'm also puzzled by our revulsion of violence against children, then our championing of it with all sorts of euphemisms from 'disciplining' to 'teaching hard lessons.' Language is such a malleable tool, it can wrap acceptability around almost anything.

After all, Eichmann believed he was one of the righteous.


  1. love your line 'Language is such a malleable tool, it can wrap acceptability around almost anything.'
    the basis of political persuasion? I have a poem wanting to be written on this topic! THanks for inspiration.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Yes, language is a bit like wood, it can be left to grow into new branches or cut and shaped into the stock of a rifle. It's the hand that shapes it, that twists it, that makes the difference.

    Let us know where you post the poem when it's completed.

  3. I often think about this topic, the cognitive dissonance we all display in one way or another, what it would take to turn a person into a freedom fighter or a murderer, what the difference is (semantics? culture?). This post made me think of two things as I read it: Don Brash is just the right environment away from being another Eichmann, and I am one of those 'riteous' people who then bullies teenagers on reality shows via Facebook. It's scary to be caught out.