The Grossly Misunderstood 'Banality of Evil' Theory

Anyone who reads Hannah Arendt’s writings – which offer numerous insights about the banality of evil, even when she doesn’t use the term directly – cannot take seriously the propositions ascribed to her by sociologist Eva Illouz.

Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961
Adolf Eichmann being brought to justice in Israel in 1961 AP

Having spent five years delving into the writings of the political thinker Hannah Arendt, while researching my 2015 documentary “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt,” I take the liberty of stating that Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, in her article “Rethinking the ‘banality of evil’ theory” (Haaretz, August 5), displays an unfortunate miscomprehension of that fraught term.

We shall begin with factual errors. 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, in a 1964 radio interview with the German journalist and historian Joachim Fest that she never meant that within each of us is hidden a small Nazi (nor is that notion found in her writings).

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.

Throughout her life, Arendt was vexed by these misunderstandings and deliberate misinterpretations of her thought; her vigorous denials were of no avail. Anyone who reads her writings, which are laced with insights about the banality of evil, even when she does not invoke the term explicitly, cannot take seriously a single one of these arguments.

In a letter relating to the onslaught of vilifications she endured following publication of her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt wrote: “When, many years ago, I described the totalitarian system and analyzed the totalitarian mentality, it was always a ‘type,’ rather than individuals, I had to deal with, and if you look at the system as a whole, every individual person becomes indeed ‘a cog small or big,’ in the machinery of terror. It is the great advantage of court procedure that it inevitably confronts you with the person and personal guilt… I wanted to know: Who was Eichmann? What were his deeds … insofar as he was a free agent? ... And it is for this reason that the whole small cog theory… is quite irrelevant in this context.” Elsewhere she emphasizes, rightly, that it was not she who had termed Eichmann a “small cog,” but rather his defense counsel – and she had explicitly opposed this.

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.

Arendt takes the Nazi example as a point of departure to understand the essence of historical evil and morality. No extreme evil, not even Nazism, springs from a vacuum or is completely disconnected from the functional mechanisms, cultures and subcultures of the world, even if it represents an unprecedented phenomenon. In this sense, no evil is outside history or outside mankind. The individual’s collaboration with the world in which he grew up, and the way in which that world shapes and molds him by the force of ingrained conditioning, until he becomes flesh of its flesh, is morality’s most ancient arena of struggle. No person is entirely free from being conditioned by images, prejudices, concepts of beauty and ugliness, clichés or social norms that he grew up with and which abut exclusionism and racism.

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.

There is no way to understand Arendt’s term the “banality of evil” divorced from other key concepts of her thought: freedom of choice, judgment and personal and collective responsibility vis-à-vis the common world that we all share. Her very concept of thought is defined, in part, by means of including the world and including the Other. According to Arendt, it is impossible to think without relating to the reality of the world and without coping with the point of view of others, or without constantly summoning up all the devil’s advocates – not in order to accept their arguments automatically, but to enable free judgment and choice.

Hannah Arendt

Moreover, thinking, which is obligated to accommodate the situation of the Other, requires the totality of our human abilities. It is the essence of our humanity. For example, thinking is not content with listening to the Other; to understand and think about the world one must be capable of stepping into the Other’s shoes. That calls for empathy, deeply emotive thought (as opposed to sentimentality), commitment and the necessary imagination to project, as far as possible, your own personal experiences onto the other. For Arendt, retreating from the world into oneself, insularity, isolation and addiction to logic per se, which is the opposite of thought, deal a death blow to thinking and constitute the root of all evil.

Evil’s strategies

Faced with what Arendt terms the “automatic processes of the world,” in which egoistic group, national and individual evil inhere, it is always incumbent on the thinking, moral individual who is endowed with freedom of choice to abort them. Hence also the notion of the responsibility and guilt of those who choose to ignore evil and even collaborate with it, directly or indirectly. Accordingly, Arendt, in contrast to many of her generation, believed that Eichmann’s death sentence was entirely justified (not because he embodied evil, but because he embodied extreme evil against humanity, evil that sought to exclude a whole people from humanity and to exterminate that people, thereby eradicating the principle of the diversity of humanity, which is effectively its essence).

In my view, Arendt in fact belongs to the philosophers who believe that man is basically good, that the moral impulse, like the need for friendship and love, is more authentically human than evil. She also believes that the process of doing battle against evil, like thinking itself, is never-ending, as every moment of our life is a “new beginning" or "new birth," as she phrased it, an opportunity for correction, contrition, reconciliation, transformation and revolution. It is only rarely that an individual chooses evil for its own sake. For the most part he chooses ideologies, clichés, convenience, half-truths and lies, new and old types of ethos, surrender to fashion and historical and contemporary frames of mind, some of which even gather momentum through some type of “historical necessity.”

Above all, there is no evil that does not occur in the name of some “necessity.” Participation in evil is always said to be due to lack of choice, in the name of egoistic group, personal and national interests, which are in concrete or imagined danger and place themselves above morality and humanness. This collaboration with the evil of the world to which one belongs far transcends the question of obedience. Nor does it involve so much a “special kind" of forgetfulness of humanness, a notion that Illouz mistakenly attributes to Arendt. “Evil is thought-defying,” Arendt asserts, that is, a profound dumbness with respect to the world and the Other, and systematic turning away from humanness, morality and conscience, in some cases – as in Nazism – to the point of reversing the concepts of good and evil.

Even today, 40 years after Arendt’s death and more than 50 years after the Eichmann trial, whose inherent sensitivities have faded, the simplistic readings accorded her ideas reveal the inability of the existing, familiar conservative society (in all its forms, on both the left and the right), to cope with the question of evil as an existential condition, confrontable only by the free, thinking individual. We are witness to the well-known vicious circle: the desire to protect the world we have chosen to live in and identify with – out of habit, assimilation of its symbols and clichés; the need for belonging and cooperation, comfort, group and personal interests; and even the belief in the ostensible justness of our path – induces us to seal ourselves off from the evil embedded in the world and to describe it as the antithesis to all possible evil – a stance that definitely constitutes another form of the banality of evil.

Hence Illouz’s baseless notion that the banality of evil does not distinguish between types of evil. Arendt chose to prefer the term “extreme evil” over the Kantian “radical evil,” in order to emphasize that extreme evil is always found in a sequence of different types of evil, at varying levels. The way in which she grounded the concept of thought in experience - in relating to reality, in an examination of the specific amid the general - leaves no doubt that she ascribes supreme importance to differentiating between evils.

But the differences do not annul the similarities or exempt us from examining common principles that define evil. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election-campaign flaunting of the slogan, “Good is what is good for the Jews, bad is what is bad for the Jews,” a slogan that appeared in the 1940s in the Nazis’ notorious newspaper Der Stuermer – except that instead of “Jews” Der Stuermer wrote “Germans” – does not mean that Netanyahu is a Nazi, but it does mean that all the warning lights should be lit up.

The call not to make comparisons is an attempt to pull the ground out from the definition of evil itself and to enshrine for ourselves demilitarized areas where evil can be perpetrated without it being considered evil. Without the need for constant vigilance to locate the principles of evil also in our “system” – to whose stench our nose is no longer sensitive – we lose our freedom of choice and thought.

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. (The most shocking example is found in Heinrich Himmler’s well-known speech at Poznan in 1944: “We had the moral right, we had the duty to our own people, to kill this people that wanted to kill us.”) However, the timing of and reasons for an eruption of evil are indeed an historical question.

Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette. 1969.

The concept of the banality of evil does not purport to explain the history of racism or human egoism. It’s a philosophical idea from the realm of social-political morality, not a substitute for continued sociological and historical research. It touches on the sensitive nerve of the individual’s moral responsibility to take a stand against society, in any place and at any time, to confront conventions and clichés that pad the automatic processes of evil. It demands that the individual will go beyond the horizon of self-centered everyday life, and not surrender to physical, emotional or intellectual conveniences, to egoistic personal and group interests, to blind collaboration with the society, to the pleasure of an uncritical sense of cohesiveness, to the enjoyment of belonging to the strong, as such, to lies and half-truths, to dumbness, to life’s functionalities, and to justifying what exists.

It’s an idea that demands that the individual think relentlessly, stand up against the world’s steamroller to which he is exposed, and take full responsibility for his judgments and choices, in a reality that is always tangled and complex – in a word, that he be human. It’s perhaps an over-demanding reminder that one can never take a break from humanness.

The Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan, whom Illouz cites, is to be congratulated for his research into the conditions – the frames of mind and cultural contexts – that have preceded genocides. I haven’t read his book, but based on Illouz’s remarks, nothing in his findings contradicts Arendt’s banality of evil concept. There is nothing new in the traits he found in historical examples of genocide, such as powerful internal cohesiveness, a sense of exaltation and the cultivation of a shared glorious history, a sense of common mission and non-identification with the Other. These traits, by the way, also exist in nationalist democratic regimes, which are not genocidal, and contribute to the banalization of evil as such.

The mistaken distinction between ideological hatred (evil) and obedience (banality) also crept into an article by Daniel Blatman (Haaretz, August 21). Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil encapsulates ideology and obedience alike, alongside a large range of patterns of behavior, propaganda, clichés, stereotypes, automatic psychological feelings (such as self-victimization) and everything that facilitates the normalization of evil. From the viewpoint of the banality of evil, the argument propounded by the American social scientist Scott Straus (as cited by Blatman) about “a combination of factors that are visceral and banal alike” in the case of the Rwanda genocide, or any other genocide, is also meaningless.

 Not only visceral hatred but social and political fears are often the product of ideologies that, by means of those fears, nourish racism and evil. The Hutus’ fear of a Tutsi “expansion” in Rwanda, for example, was largely the result of ideological propaganda, which cultivated an imaginary, fabricated situation and implanted many of the patterns of European racism there by way of Belgian colonialism. The claim that in Rwanda fear was conjoined by a tendency toward “obedience to authority that characterizes ordinary people in Rwanda,” as Blatman writes, smacks of an unpleasant sense of patronization and a pinch of racism, particularly in the light of the Nazi, Stalinist, Cambodian, Serbian, ISIS and other examples.

Arendt (and many others, it needs to be said) emphasizes these and similar patterns in all her writings as displays of conformism, of becoming inured, of blind adaption, and acceptance of and collaboration with evil without thinking. In her view, those patterns are part of the arsenal of the banality of evil, through which evil penetrates into the world, offering the semblance of patriotism, decency and necessity, nourished by the unrealism and the lies of closed ideologies, which frequently justify themselves through the agency of their internal logic. “Non-identification” with the Other is, in Arendt’s view, salient proof of the individual’s loss of the ability to think: namely, to be human.

Not only does Illouz render Arendt’s thought shallow and mistakenly place the notion of obedience, in its narrow meaning, at the center of the concept of the banality of evil. She also concludes from this that it is impossible to explain through it how, in evil regimes, politicians and authority figures who owe obedience to no one, incite to hatred and violence and enact racist legislation. We are reminded of the chicken-and-egg question. Politicians and authority figures, too, are captive to the same automatic processes of evil and are adept at exploiting them to further their purposes. They too resort to existing ideologies, rationalizations, feelings of nationalist cohesiveness, notions of no-choice, imaginary moral supremacy, the creation of a reality that lies to itself - "lying the truth" – as Arendt put it, and everything else that helps transform evil, in the full range of its manifestations, so shockingly into something fit for all, or at least morally neutral.