Tuesday, September 25, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – II

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. - Hannah Arendt  

What took the cake for Arendt was when Eichmann said that his whole life was lived according to Kantian precepts, including his obedience to Nazi authority. He invoked "duty" in an effort to explain his own version of Kantianism. Arendt writes: "This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant's moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man's faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience."

Eichmann came up with what Arendt calls ‘an approximately correct definition' of the Kant’s categorical imperative: "I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws" (which is not the case with theft or murder, for instance, because the thief or the murderer cannot conceivably wish to live under a legal system that would give others the right to rob or murder him).  He said that he had read Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.

But then Eichmann contradicts himself as he explains his Kantian commitments. Although he had stated that his obedience to Nazi authority was Kantian, he acknowledges that once he was charged with the task of carrying out the Final Solution, he ceased to live by Kantian principles: "he no longer 'was master of his own deeds,' and  he 'was unable to change anything'". Arendt writes:
What he failed to point out in court was that in this "period of crimes legalized by the state," as he himself now called it, he had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or of the law of the land - or, in Hans Frank's formulation of "the categorical imperative in the Third Reich," which Eichmann might have known: "Act  in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it" 
I have not read Kant. But Kant’s philosophy is explained in layman’s language in Michael Sandel’s book Justice. According to Kant, freedom means to act autonomously i.e. according to a law that I give myself, not as instruments of somebody or something outside of me. He says that the moral worth of an action depends not on its consequences but on its intentions. And only those duties have moral worth that are done because that they are right not because they are useful or convenient. And  Kant emphasized that people should be regarded as ends in themselves not as means to an end. For Eichmann to say that he was following Kant requires quite an imagination. Arendt writes:
But it is true that Eichmann's unconscious distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant "for the household use of the little man." In this household use, all that is left of Kant's spirit is the demand that a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law ...
Much of the horribly painstaking thoroughness in the execution of the Final Solution - a thoroughness that usually strikes the observer as typically German, or else as characteristic of the perfect bureaucrat - can be traced to the odd notion, indeed very common in Germany, that to be law-abiding means not merely to obey the laws but to act as though one were the legislator of the laws that one obeys. Hence the the conviction that nothing less than going beyond the call of duty will do.
Arendt recognized  that Eichmann was the perfect example of the modern man devoted to carrying out efficiently what he had been tasked to do without being burdened by feelings. He had carried out orders to the best of his ability and said that he did not want to be one of those who now pretended that "they had always been against it," whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. He said that although he had now ‘arrived at different insights’, it did not mean that he regretted anything: "Repentance is for little children." (Sic!)

Arendt says that Dostoevsky once mentions in his diaries that in Siberia, among scores of murderers, rapists, and burglars, he never met a single man who would admit that he had done wrong. She had little sympathy for the excuse repeatedly used by Nazis criminals: “I was a cog in the machine”; “I obeyed the orders”; “anybody would have acted the same way”… etc.  She writes about these people (people who did what the Nazis told them to do in order to advance their careers and later repudiated them when it became too hot) that they reminded her of this comment:
In his almost totally unknown Diary of a Man in Despair," ...Reck-Malleczewen wrote, after he had heard of the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life, which of course he regretted: "A little late, gentlemen, you who made this arch destroyer of Germany and ran after him, as long as everything seemed to be going well; you who . . . without hesitation swore every oath demanded of you and reduced yourselves to the despicable flunkies of this criminal who is guilty of the murder of hundreds of thousands, burdened with the lamentations and the curse of the whole world; now you have betrayed him. . . . Now, when the bankruptcy can no longer be concealed, they betray the house that went broke, in order to establish a political alibi for themselves - the same men who have betrayed everything that was in the way of their claim to power."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ - I

Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” – Joseph Brodsky

Adolf Eichmann had the task of regulating “Jewish affairs and evacuations” in the Nazi regime. Until July 1944, his department played a key role in organizing the deportation of European Jews to the killing centers. Following the war, he dodged in and out  of the Middle East for several years before settling in Argentina in 1958. He was arrested by Israeli secret service agents near Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 11, 1960 and was put on trial in Jerusalem. He was convicted on fifteen charges, among which were crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and crimes of war.

After the trial, Eichmann was sentenced to death and  was hanged on May 31,1962. One of the leading philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt wrote a report on the trial which appeared in The New Yorker as a series of articles in 1963. From these articles she later published a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil which examines the wide gap in public perception between and the horror of the genocide and the insignificance (the banality) of the persons who were among those most responsible.

The question that plagued many was: how could in what was once regarded as the citadel of Western civilization, industrial scale murder of millions of people have be allowed to take place? How could it be that in a culture of law, order, and reason, there should have survived such murderous hatreds? How could  great masses of people willingly tolerate the mass extermination of their fellow citizens? What are the limitations of our modern society  and our assumed enlightenment? Arendt's book helps to answer some of these questions.

Arendt went to the trial thinking that she would find a Nazi monster but was shocked to find Eichmann “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. His case was all the more extraordinary because he had not been simply a subordinate. Rather, his part was very important in implementing the crimes. Arendt neither doubted Eichmann’s guilt, nor did she doubt that he deserved the death sentence. She pointed out the general pattern of how ordinary people become brutal killers. She shows how the not uncommon trait of being unable to think from the standpoint of others turns ordinary people into unfeeling, bureaucratic killers.  Arendt insisted, “obedience and support are the same.”

One of the aims of employing the word banality was to break with the standard and deceitful representations of evil as abnormal, profound and monstrous. The other side of banality refers to the activities that produced such evil. These activities were not murderous in themselves. They were comprised of office work such as organizing transport, deciding how many Jews should be deported and to where. Eichmann knew perfectly well the train destinations and understood that the Jews were to be killed, and how they were to be killed. But he had a curious idea of duty: if he did not see Jews being killed, his activities were not responsible.

By writing about ‘the banality of evil’, Arendt does not argue that the Holocaust and its unspeakable horrors are banal.  She was not saying that the Nazi crimes were the similar to what had taken place earlier in history. In fact, she thought that the crime was unprecedented and that the court did not go far enough to stress this point. She feared that what had become "banal" was non-thinking itself - Eichmann was ready to do anything to advance in the Nazi bureaucratic grades. The situation had developed in such a way in the Third Reich that humans implemented policy, but no longer thought about the consequences of their actions.

The bureaucratization of evil can be compared to Adam Smith's method of production of goods: no person is responsible for producing the entire article. A person is instead responsible for repetitive production of part of the article resulting in more efficient production. Similarly, efficient production of evil depends on each person specializing in a part of the process. This diffusion of responsibility makes it easy for people to use their remarkable powers of rationalization to wash their hands off any responsibility for the resulting monstrosity.

Arendt was making a distinction between the doer and the deed:  what was ‘banal’ was not the consequences of the act but the regular , systematic way in which it was committed. At no step was there a protest. Over time, criminal activities had become routine and the moral universe had shrunk to such an extant that criminal orders were implemented without revulsion. It is often assumed that genocide must be caused by extraordinarily evil persons and unusual psychological processes that cannot be easily understood. But the psychological processes that lead up to that point and enable people to perpetrate such horrors are not so unusual.

Rather, the processes that enable genocide include many mundane, ordinary psychological phenomena that also apply in times of relative peace (for eg., the use of metaphors to normalize war). There was a failure to think and for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking may be genocidal. The banality did not concern all of the agents carrying out orders but specifically the evil that was committed by Eichmann. Banality refers to Eichmann as a character: his way of speaking, his use of clichés and stock phrases applicable to any situation and supported by the officialese, which he still admitted in 1961 was the only language he knew.

Of present-day Germans who saw figures like him as ingenious monsters, she said: “They possibly understood this as a way of creating a certain alibi for themselves. If you succumb to the power of a beast from the depths, you’re naturally much less guilty than if you succumb to a completely average man.” People become desensitized to violence they are exposed to; and participating in violence makes us more likely to engage in future violence.

It is also more comforting to think that a few monsters completely unlike us can be destroyed to make the world a better place than to contemplate a bottomless amoral mediocrity latent in millions. It indicates a fear of acknowledging that there doesn't exist an unbridgeable gap between the evil monster and our inner killer. Man, said Emerson, is nothing but God in ruins. As Auden said in his poem September 1, 1939. ‘The windiest militant trash / Important Persons shout / Is not so crude as our wish...'.