Sunday, March 02, 2008

Beneath the Surface of Normal.

Nazi Germany forced us to contemplate evil as something we are all capable of because the people who perpetrated the unspeakable horrors that occurred in Germany and surrounding countries during WWII were apparently so "normal", "average", and "unremarkable" as opposed to out of control, foaming at the mouth, three-headed monsters that we often see in our nightmares, that we had to rethink the whole concept. Hannah Arendt's popular phrase, the "banality of evil"- extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unextraordinary people, who as she said, could be described as merely "thoughtless" - redefined evil. Her contribution was invaluable even if she may have gotten a few things wrong, imho. Without realizing that we are all capable of evil, we will never curtail its power.

"Banality of evil" altered our perceptions of evil and illuminated the very important fact that no one is immune from evil's slippery slope; the slope that borders the narrow path of righteousness. Men and women who walk this path must closely monitor their steps in order to avoid the icy patches that could inadvertently send them sliding down the glazed over descent into the "infernal abode" we try so hard to avoid. It's all too easy to cross the line from aspiring to do good to believing we are "good" thus incapable of wrongdoing thus refusing to reflect or question our words and actions, thus refusing to think. thus, thus, thus..i love the word thus...

Thoughtless behavior is often excused because our behavior and/or words occur spontaneously for the most part, such as when we're caught off-guard or we're so wrapped up in the emotion of current circumstance that our thought process is temporarily hijacked. All of us, at one time or another, has either spoken or acted without thinking. Eventually, as we collect our thoughts, we realize we may have acted inappropriately. Feeling remorseful, we painfully, agree to take responsibility, as it is always, at the very least, uncomfortable to admit we're wrong. This type of thoughtlessness implies a degree of innocence. However, "innocent" thoughtlessness requires reflection and acceptance of fault. Thoughtlessness, which occurs from refusing to think, is a different story all together and it is never innocent.

If, as Hannah Arednt says, evil results from thoughtlessness, it is an intentional thoughtlessness where we've been there and done that before but we continue to do it because we refuse to reflect on our actions. Given the right circumstances, we have the capacity to carry out a whole range of actions including wicked, destructive behavior, which can cause misery, suffering and sorrow in others.

At the same time, most of us have been endowed with an extraordinary convoluted mass of gray and white matter, enclosed and protected by dense, semi-rigid, connective tissue, positioned at the apex of our being, called the brain. This highly remarkable structure is more than qualified to override our less than desirable instinct or inherent barbarism so that we can transcend our natural propensity to action or inaction that may inflict harm.

Therefore, refusing to engage our brain or ignoring its presence all together is a conscious attempt to absolve ourselves of responsibility and allows us to participate repeatedly in immoral, unethical, or barbaric actions or deliberate inaction that may result in unspeakable horror as it did in WWII and continues to do so around the globe.

Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet — and this is its horror! — it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world. Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil. -- Hannah Arendt

Although, it is hard to believe that the majority of us, even the most intentionally thoughtless, could withstand the brutal reality of the horror of a Holocaust like event. Most of us would at the very least, try to escape, rather than willfully and "dispassionately" participate, as Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Hess and Joseph Goebbels did on a daily basis. To characterize these "men" as "normal" people "dispassionately" following orders to preserve their national identity - something that they supposedly placed supreme value, in and of itself - is ridiculous.

From all the televised footage of Nazi Germany since the end of the war, "dispassionate" was not a word I would use to describe the "Third Reich". They passionately, sadistically, and cruelly carried out their "orders". These men embodied evil and valued nothing more than sadism and cruelty. They cloaked whom they really were by excusing their behavior based on their staunch belief in "following orders" and natality. They partially succeeded by convincing us that any one of us, given the right circumstances, could have created the anathema that was the Holocaust. This is where I part ways with Hannah Arednt...I'm sure she's rolling over in her grave. ;)

"It is possible to defile life and creation and feel no remorse. To tend one’s garden and water one’s flowers but two steps away from barbed wire. To go on vacation, be enthralled by the beauty of a landscape, make children laugh - and still fulfill regularly, day in and day out, the duties of [a] killer. – Elie Wiesel

As Elie Wiesel says, it is most definitely possible for "man" to "defile life and creation" and carry on normally. However, are we all capable of sadistically murdering humanity, to the extent that it was carried out in Nazi Germany? Were Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Hess, and Joseph Goebbels, as Hannah Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann,
"neither perverted nor sadistic? [but] terribly and terrifyingly normal’, and without ‘any diabolical or demonic profundity’; what characterized him was ’sheer thoughtlessness’"

After witnessing the atrocities these high-ranking Nazis enthusiastically partook, it's impossible to believe their perversion and sadistic behavior did not come from the core of their being, and that they indeed were exactly what Hannah Arendt said they were not, perverted, sadistic, diabolical monsters.

Their "normal" appearance, because of their ability to remain composed, mannerly, and apparently lacking the aggression we believe necessary to make someone "demonic" made us question "evil" because it looks and acts so much like us...there must have been something beyond their control, circumstances perhaps, which render them robots, incapable of seeing the horror they're inflicting. Taken out of context, Adolf Eichmann appeared "normal" during his televised trial. However, is it normal to sit there, unaffected and in total control, while watching the sadistic destruction of humanity that you are being accused? I think not. That "man" not only saw and understood what he was doing; he took great pleasure in creating the excruciating conditions used to destroy six million people and immensely enjoyed the outcome of his effort.

Applying the label, "normal" to human beings is meaningless for the most part. Human beings are multi-faceted entities and in order to add meaning, we would have to dig beneath the surface to determine whether normal applies. It's much easier to ascertain someone is not normal, as in the case with Adolf Eichmann.


Todd,  23:47  

I pretty much agree. To sum up the evil as a result of people who fail to reflect is a little too simple when describing certain kinds of evil. Her banality-of-evil thesis was and is true of much evil that goes on it today's world but it in no way captures the evil that happened in Nazi Germany.

They were white, upper-class and sophisticated and she focused on that aspect and not much else.

Enjoy reading your blog.

BENITO,  21:51  

I'm not sure I agree with your assumption that Eichmann and the rest of the Nazis were perverted and sadistic as much as they were cowards in the worst sense of the word.

Eichmann said when he first saw the camps he was disgusted and appalled.

He then detached himself so he could carry out his duties. The cowardly part comes in when he detaches so he can join them instead of face the alternative, join the victims.

Detachment is a childhood defense mechanism used to escape the bad things children cannot deal with and very appropriate in childhood.
Adults no longer need to use detachment. Adults are supposed to be able to face reality and handle it head on or at the very least flee if the reality is too much to handle and perhaps try to fight it another way.

We'll never know for sure. The Nazis went beyond what the "normal" human being can comprehend...the true definition of evil. It's almost impossible to comprehend the people who carried out such evil acts are not perverted, sadistic monsters.

anti-W 11:38  

Good point. It's very possible. I guess what I have trouble with is the degree of enthusiasm it seems the Nazis had when carrying out their "duties".

It could be they were acting to try to convince themselves that this was the right thing to do, but that seems a little far-fetched.

I can see that happening when what a person is doing does not defy humanity in the most profound way possible because people often times align their thoughts and actions to avoid cognitive dissonance even if the reality of the situation proves otherwise.

Thanks for your comment!

anti-W 11:42  

Sorry that last comment was to Benito.


I agree. I think their status and the color of their skin clouded Ms. Arednt's vision somewhat, not taking away her astute observations and interpretations which I think overall are valid and a very important contribution.

Thanks for your comment.

blood soaked, knife wielding psychopath 16:19  

Im a blood soaked, knife wielding psychopath right in front of your face.

james william 19:34  

Evil exists as its own entity. Evil is more persistent than the rational enlightened mind of today can conceive of. The 20th century alone confirms that evil exists between Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Rwanda...

the normal process of life contains moments as bad as any of those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. . .

ky,  22:32  

evil exists all by itself is ridiculous. evil is choice i make or not. it is not spook.

murder is choice. rape is choice. they are evil choices.

BENITO,  23:47  

Cowardly and evil are almost synonymous or cowards are more likely to make evil choices. I guess it's more cause and effect.

As James William said, maybe evil does exist all by itself and the cowardly are more likely to succumb to its influence. The already perverted and sadistic are inherently evil whereas the cowardly are just cowards, empty of any principles or convictions. Or possibly they have principles but are too weak to stand by them.

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