The Evil of Banality: A Necessary Corrective by Ada Ushpiz to Eva Illouz’s Reading of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”

arendt-eichmann

L: Hannah Arendt; R: Adolf Eichmann facing trial, 1961

My friend Dov Golebowicz emailed me Ada Ushpiz’s article in Haaretz, & wrote “The Evil of Banality” in the subject line; I’ve adopted it as the title of this post.

& I do stand corrected. Although there are many things that I still agree with in Eva Illouz’s article, which I shared & wrote about in a post in August, this crucial correction needs to be emphasized.

I quote below what I feel are the most salient pars in Ushpiz’s article, & emphasize in bold what I see as the most important corrective statements. From these we can gain a clearer understanding of the banality of the continuing evils being sustained in the world today by various regimes with the acquiescence and complicity of the majority of their countries’ populations & the populations of their countries’ “allies”: the violations of basic human rights implicit & explicit in military occupations of indigenous populations, among them the Zionist occupation of Palestine, the Indonesian occupation of West Papua, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the tyrannical regime in Eritrea, etc etc; the destructive & alienation-causing neoliberal-capitalist global exploitation of people & non-renewable resources; the imperialist military-industrial complexes’ power&profit-motivated destabilization of the Middle East & war-mongering in Syria & Yemen; etc etc.; the inhumane responses of many countries to the refugee crisis & the cruel detention of asylum seekers, etc etc.

Arendt never considered the Nazi evil or the Holocaust as an expression of “an undiagnosed but latent disease of regular, ordinary human beings,” as Illouz wrote. She definitely did not see Adolf Eichmann only as a cog in the monstrous Nazi machine, and she was at pains to emphasize unequivocally […] that she never meant that within each of us is hidden a small Nazi […].

From her mistaken presumption, Illouz then immediately concludes that “if within each of us there is a dormant Nazi, then evil, according to Arendt, is necessarily banal.” That is arrant nonsense, which even many of Arendt’s regular denigrators no longer dare repeat once they have been confronted with her writings. Nor did Arendt ever claim that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite or was not a Nazi idealist in every fiber of his being. It is precisely his absolute and thoughtless symbiosis with the Nazi world, its ideologies and racist norms – despicable and flagrantly immoral but nevertheless legitimate and lawful within the Nazi world, and enjoying the assent of its “moral majority” – that is the embodiment of the banality of evil.

[…]

Illouz’s attempt to diminish and simplify the idea of the banality of evil and cast it as a commonplace, all-too-human tendency “to obey, to accept authority unquestioningly, to be susceptible to group and peer pressure, and to display a special kind of forgetfulness – of the humanness of the human being they destroy” – represents the commonplace distortion of Arendt’s thought. Although Arendt does address the question of obedience, she does it within the broad and deep context of the individual’s collaboration with the world to which he belongs and which he adopts thoughtlessly (for thought is by definition critical). That symbiosis is sometimes appalling and phantasmagorical, when it leads to genocide, at times appearing to us as inevitable when it produces evil that is commonplace, familiar and acceptable to us personally, irrespective of its severity.

What unites all types of evil, which are created in the different worlds of national and social interest groups, is that the “decent citizens” of all the worlds always require a semblance of self-evidence, normality, ideologies, ethos, the legitimization of a majority of some kind, laws of nature and man-made laws, and above all a sense of morality and mission to validate the evil. To that end, the “decent folk” create an abundance of “normative morality” that suits their egoistic group needs, but whose connection to morality that is measured by criteria of universal applicability, according to Kant, and of the existence of a “common world,” according to Arendt, is scant if not nonexistent. This tangled web of maintenance of evil and the ramified modes of the individual’s thoughtless collaboration with social and national evil, are recruited to normalize evil and create an arena of the banality of evil in the life of individuals, groups and nations.

[…]

This is the reason, according to Arendt, that the battle against evil must be waged in the recesses of the individual’s morality and of thought, which by definition constantly challenges and questions consensual world orders. It’s a personal struggle of each person against social and historical fixations, patterns and legacies – what Arendt calls “the burden of mankind” that rests on man’s shoulders. The same mankind, which, along with humanism, also cultivated and justified for generations a history of evil in all its forms – imperialism, colonialism, racism and group, national and private egoism – always aimed at excluding and trampling the other.

[…]

The question that Illouz puts forward as a major issue supposedly ignored by Arendt – “What must happen in a society for a large group of people and its representatives to transform violence into a form of moral behavior?” – is also phrased problematically. It’s not my impression that Illouz is a pacifist who is trying to sweep under the rug the complex question of social and political violence. The question should be – and this is the question that Arendt posed in all its acuity – “What needs to happen in a society for some majority to transform evil into morality?” That is the question that spawned Arendt’s insight about the banality of evil – a concept that, if we read Arendt closely, encapsulates the totality of evil’s strategies to penetrate into the world and present itself as acceptable, logical, as the voice of the majority, as a mission.

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