Hannah Arendt & “The banality of Evil”
When we look at the past and at all the crimes against humanity that affected world history, we get to the point where we really ask ourselves: «how are human beings capable of such cruelty?». And that’s exactly the question which conducted Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German, Ph.D. in Philosophy to write «Eichmann in Jerusalem», a comment about what she will denominate “banality of evil”.
Hannah Arendt is one of the most outstanding thinkers of the XXth century thanks to the theory about the “Banality of Evil” that she developed during the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal and civil servant of the Third Reich, in which she participated as a journalist reporter.
During this trial, Hannah Arendt will realize that Eichmann is in reality not a monster like everybody thinks he is. No, Eichmann is neither a monster nor a crazy psychopath but simply an ordinary man, a person just like you and I, author of the evil of a big commonness. And it’s this realization that will conduct her to develop the philosophical concept of “Banality of Evial”.
According to her, it’s very difficult to judge crimes such insupportable as the Holocaust because of the fact that the criminals that commit them are so ordinary, which makes it even scarier and harder to understand. If they were just monsters, that could be the justification for their actions, but since they are not, according to her, what could explain such cruelty?
To explain it, Hannah Arendt bases her theory on a philosophical concept very important and innovative that considers that every person has an inhuman side in itself. In many cases, this inhuman part of the person is aroused by the harmfulness of a totalitarian system which throws the criminal in such circumstances that he does not even realize that he’s committing evil. In fact, the totalitarian system kills the “political animal” in the person to leave only its biological aspect; it dehumanizes the person to cut all the links that connect him to a community so that it doesn’t feel part of the world anymore. Due to this destruction of its individual personality, the person loses all references about the good and the evil and lose its morality as well.
According to Hannah Arendt, that’s what erase their guiltiness about the crimes: they are not aware of the fact that their actions are not correct and are affecting humanity, the only thing for what they are guilty, still according to her, is the choice they deliberately made to abandon their thought, to just follow the move without thinking about what they were doing. Continue to think is the key to never fall in the banality of evil because a man incapable of thinking doesn’t need any feeling of hate or any ideology to commit the worst actions, he only needs a submission.
“The monstrous systems live off the passivity of ordinary people”
To conclude, there are three keys to the totalitarian system to succeed in leading a person to commit such crimes:
- First, they destroy all the moral references of the person.
- Secondly, they draw a frontier to distinguish their own group of the rest of humanity. They don’t consider others as they consider themselves, they are the only “normal” people according to them and see others as different, as inhuman.
- Thirdly, the totalitarian system imposes rules and laws that their subjects will respect feeling like all they do is obey their superior, follow their superior’s order and the law. This way they don’t think about what they are doing but just follow and are submissive to the law, convinced that it’s what they have to do. Therefore, evil is not considered, in these cases, as disobedience to the law but as complete obedience to it.
So, in general, even if this theory applied with Nazism originally, it also applied to many other situations like the experience of Milgram or even the phenomenon of violent extremism and radicalization. Effectively, we can see that the process of radicalization always starts with an isolation of the person who cuts all the relations that link him to the world, taking his distance from his family, from his friends and from any other group that he considers as infidels. By separating it from all his references, the victim becomes really swayable and falls into a state of non-thought which can lead them to do things without thinking about them and without realizing that they are not necessarily correct or fair. And this is exactly the recruiting process followed by all terrorist groups which want to higher their strength.