Saturday, April 23, 2016
J. Skylar Dean
Dr. P. Oliver
POST I: Arendt and the Concept of "the Banality of Evil"
For my first post I will discuss Arendt’s idea she called “the banality of Evil” and my beliefs on this concept. Arendt first formulated her ideas on “common evil” while reporting the trial of Adolf Eichmann. One of the first observations Arendt made about Eichmann was that he did not appear “sinister,” but in fact was very ordinary. This realization contradicted her expectations that Eichmann, and people who have committed his level of atrocities, will be monsters who have premeditated and expressly found satisfaction in their deeds. From her experience watching and reporting on Eichmann, she saw that he actually did not believe he done anything wrong, but had merely obeyed orders and done his duty to his country. His end goal was not to kill Jews, he simply desired to be accepted and lauded by his countrymen and peers. Eichmann’s very lack of consideration for the consequences of his actions is what Arendt called his “common evil.” She pointed out that even though he was an ordinary man, doing ordinary things that would be completely acceptable if he were in a different situation, by acting without thought or purpose, he too committed murder of thousands.
For me, this concept hit me pretty deeply. I am, by nature, a people-pleaser and enjoy helping those around me. In many situations this has been a quality that has left people around me feeling cared about and valued, but now I can see the danger of the possibility of “common evil” when combined with my personality. When I first began to read about Arendt’s ideas, I immediately began to question myself. “What in my life do I do without thought or question? What do I tend to do for approval from others?” and the scariest thought of all, “What do I accept and condone simply because my culture does?” This is where I believe Eichmann went wrong. Yes he wanted approval, and yes obeyed orders, but that all falls under the fact that he was surrounded by Nazi hatred and he went along with it as an unthinking participant. He did not think, and yet he acted. He did not hate, and yet he murdered. I want to learn from this concept, because all people to some extent want to fit in. Culture moves and sways with waves of often unthinking people. There are always a few who are “seers” in every generation; ones who notice and are watchful for the end product and will swim against their culture. This is who I desire to be, not an Eichmann. If one thinks hard about the paradox of Eichmann’s situation, one could say he was simply unlucky. A hard working and industrious man, put him in another time and place and he would be a blessing to his society. This is not the side of the paradox I see. In my opinion, Eichmann was responsible for multitudes of heinous crimes. Crimes of the most subtle and terrifying kind: the evil of the unthinking man. If we carry this thought a little further, his crime was that he did not think, did not watch, did not look down range to see the product of his actions. Many of us, by that definition, are guilty. We are mostly lucky that our lack of thought has not cost us...yet. I do not want end my life guilty of that kind of sin, the ultimate waste: a life characterized by banal, common evil, and not one thought.
"Anybody know how to play chess? Everyone on the board is here for one reason and one reason only: to protect the king. In here and in life, you must think before you move.
Chess is not different than life.
I didn’t see the endgame and it cost me, man, it cost me big."
- Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie: "Life of a King".