‘Is our ability to judge, to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly, dependent upon our faculty of thought? Do the inability to think and a disastrous failure of what we commonly call conscience coincide?…. An answer, if at all, can come only from the thinking experience, the performance itself, which means that we have to trace experiences rather than doctrines.’ (Arendt, 2003: 159, 167)
In an interview, a man who worked as a killer-of-Tutsis thinks back to a particular day during the three months of the Rwandan genocide. He remembers one of his many victims: ‘Me, I knew this old man by name, but I had heard nothing unpleasant about him. That evening I told my wife everything, we did not discuss it, and I went to sleep’ (Hatzfeld, 2005: 22). The killing was a job, not a vendetta; it was nothing personal; working hours pretty well contained it. The killers could sleep well and, next day, continue their work. For many years, I have been asking myself, how could they do it? What was going on in the minds of those whose job it was to kill, to colonize, in the Third Reich, Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo—too many times and places? What were they thinking when they faced their victims, among them acquaintances, friends, unthreatening strangers, and workers they saw every day? How can people enslave, exploit unto death, rape as an act of war and genocide, and traffic in children?
It is a very old and always searingly new question to which there are many responses. Two of the most basic conclusions to which I have come are these: no great harm to many people could ever be perpetrated if distorted systems had to rely on sadists to do it, nor would great good affecting many people happen if we had to depend on saints. And: people who are not thinking are capable of anything. I have learned that when systems go bad, when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, it does not take a Hitler, an Idi Amin, a Jeffrey Dahmer, a Charles Manson. It just takes a practiced conventionality, a cliche´d conscience, emotional conformity, susceptibility to small-scale bribery by salary, goods, and/or status, a sense of isolation, and distrust of the reliability of others that works against taking a differing public stand. It just takes, that is, much of what in better times keeps a society provided with reliable and ambitious workers, status-anxious consumers, polite neighbors, agreeable team players, and citizens who make no waves: an ability to go along thoughtlessly, to play the game. These are challenging things to say or ought to be. I have worked as an educator on the college and university level for more than a few decades and have come to believe that education may be our last, best, and perhaps—given the record of other social, economic, and political institutions, most assuredly including religious—our only hope of making Never again anything other than a tragically failed cry of the heart.
Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ and the evil of banality
In the late-1960s, I returned from a Fulbright fellowship to teach and to study classic Indian dance (Bharat Natyam) in Gujarat, India, to graduate work in political science and theory at the University of California, Berkeley, and then philosophy at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where the first course I took was Hannah Arendt’s ‘Political Experiences of the 20th Century.’ Those were stormy, fascinating, and irregular times. I wrote my first paper for Arendt asking, how could so many deeply idealistic Communists in the early days have failed to see, and to stop, what was happening as Stalin took power? It was extraordinarily difficult, I had to realize, to think outside of the ways they had for so long thought, and to question what they had believed so fully that it had given meaning to virtually all moments of their daily lives. They were not blinded ideologues, they were people who needed to make sense of things, as we all do, who found it exceedingly difficult to do so if everything they had believed in, figured out, lived by was implicated, now, in violently negating its own premises and promises. In short, they were in extraordinary circumstances, horrifying ones, but I no longer found them unusual.
Reflecting on Arendt’s work and its early reception by good people who were deeply pained, I thought that perhaps it would have helped had she spoken first of ‘the evil of banality,’ a phrase she never used, rather than ‘the banality of evil.’ The evil of banality has haunted my thinking ever since, as has Arendt’s use of ‘thoughtlessness’ to describe what was most extreme, most striking, about the man on trial in Jerusalem.
So, whatever else I have been doing, studying, teaching and writing, I have continued to try to get in close to what people caught up in extraordinary events as perpetrators, as resisters, as immediate observers were thinking. I have worked in Academe, where the emphasis is more on knowing, interpreting, testing, theorizing than it is on just trying to understand. But I have increasingly felt that understanding what perpetrators and those who resisted them thought they were doing, how they made sense of it all, was the single most morally pressing question I could ask about human beings, creatures and creators of meaning that we are. But, while the individual is finally where moral responsibility lies, it is also important to emphasize that all the many systems within which we live our lives matter a great deal.