Friday, May 20, 2016

262. Banality of evil: threat or consolation?

This is the last item of a series inspired by the work of Michel Foucault. The series will be offered as a bundle on my website

Hannah Arendt made her famous, and contested, claim of the ‘banality of evil’. With Adolf Eichmann as the leading example, she claimed that the Nazi evil of the Holocaust was perpetrated as a cool, humdrum, bureaucratic affair, by normal people who were not themselves possessed by an evil spirit.

That may be seen as frightening: Eichmann is all of us, the mass of normal people.

In a recent article[i], the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis claimed, to the contrary, that it is a consolation: to be realized, evil needs lots of normal people to work its destruction, and why would they all comply?

In his analysis, something is missing, I think. That is Foucaults’s line of thought, with his proposal that social systems (prisons, clinics, lunatic asylums, scientific communities) constitute ‘regimes of truth’. We see all the time, in a great variety of cases, that normal people come to tacitly accept their enculturation in such regimes, taking the ruling ‘truth’ as given, the way things are and should be. Large majorities of people come to not only tolerate but to actively and conscientiously adopt institutionalized views and practices that deeply harm people, and become blind to their injustice.

That applied not only to the holocaust but also, as far as I can see, to apparatchiks enacting communist terror.

Apart from such extreme cases, it applies much more widely in less gruesome but still inhuman practices. In asylums, painful and deadening lobotomies were routinely performed on mental patients.

In civilized European countries refugees and their children in large numbers are routinely subjected to loss of civil rights and liberties and normal perspectives of education, jobs and care.

So, the point is not that many normal people are required to enact vast misery, so that it should be possible to stop it. The point is that normal people are routinely carried along in the social systems that bring forth the misery, and take it for granted, the right thing to do.

Achterhuis says that to be co-opted in inhumane practices people must suffer from a lack of a ‘sense of reality’. But the point is that the social system in which they are assimilated and percolated produces their reality. He points to the Danish for the example of a people that said ‘no’ to Eichmann’s demand to put Jewish fellow citizens on transport to the camps. Yes: they were socialised in a different culture.

And what we now see happening in so-called normal European countries, including Denmark, is a slide into racism, intolerance, and discrimination that is becoming the ‘proper’, and, again, the patriotic, view, in contempt and derision of what is becoming the political incorrectness of ‘weak’, ‘naïve’, or ‘spineless’ tolerance and multiculturalism.           

[i] In the Groene Amsterdammer, 12-05-2016.

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