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On Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).
Are we still morally culpable if our entire society is corrupt? Arendt definitely thinks so, but has a number of criticisms of the handling of the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Israel used the spectacle to remind people of the horrors of the Holocaust, but missed the opportunity to explore what would make a really rather ordinary man a party to such heinous acts. They were committed to the view that he was a monster, when the reality, says Arendt, is more frightening. He was really more of a clown: a status-obsessed, cliche-spouting, self-pitying bureaucrat who, far from having no moral compass, was extremely dedicated to obeying a warped version of the Categorical Imperative: "Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it."
She also had problems with the jurisdictional claim of Israel: Eichmann was tried by Israelis for crimes against the Jewish people. She thought that the Holocaust was not just the worst of a history of pogroms, but that genocide constituted a fundamentally new type of crime that needed clear philosophical analysis: The effort to snuff out a whole civilization is a crime against humanity as a whole beyond the individual murders involved. Arendt advocated for a permanent, international criminal court (which didn't materialize until 2002).
This constitutes a test case for our previous discussion of psychological situationism: In a situation where the whole society is oriented toward evil, then the pull of duty runs counter to one's conscience, which is reined in just like in ordinary circumstances one's disruptive impulses are reined in, because conscience is disruptive in that milieu. Eichmann could have chosen not to participate in the way that he did, but considered this unthinkable; abandoning one's duty in that way "just wasn't done." All dissenting voices had been silenced. “It was not his fanaticism but his very conscience that prompted Eichmann to adopt his uncompromising attitude during the last year of the war" (from Ch. 8).
Arendt still thought that he deserved execution, that we are responsible for engaging in concrete moral thinking—grasping other people as real others and not just as labels or roles—no matter what the environment. But she thought it important that we not gloss over factual details for the sake of making a political point: Eichmann was not in a position to have "masterminded" the Holocaust as was alleged, never pulled a trigger himself or directly ordered an execution, though he did order many deportations, even after his immediate superior had ordered that they cease, knowing full well that most of those deported would be killed. She also wants to be realistic about the guilt of those who helped the Nazis either through active cooperation (e.g., Jewish leaders who worked with the Nazis to provide them with information on the Jews in the area and their property, before the Final Solution was in evidence) or through inaction, and describes countries like Denmark where the "machine" didn't work because local officials would not cooperate in handing over their Jews, and troops on the ground didn't have the heart to press through such resistance.
The full foursome tries to figure out why we assigned ourselves such depressing holiday reading and whether we in the modern day might be subject to any kind of comparable moral blindness to what was going on in Nazi Germany. How slippery is the slope when you start considering your main social ill the "problem" of immigrants? Does loyalty to a leader commit one to denying obvious truths that the leader denies?
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Arendt image by Shane Wood.
timely meditations gentlemen, Masha Gessen has been writing some broadly related essays for the New Yorker and speaking at the Arendt center all of which are worth a look.
for a more academic take see:
I agree with dmf timely meditations
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. ”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Jennifer Tejada says
I find myself listening and reading about Trump and it doesn’t seem to me that there is silence from good people, rather there are few good people. I’m as guilty as the next, but have you ever wondered what the larger message is when we berate Trump for eating McDonald’s and his crass word choices. It isn’t that I don’t believe that what he says and does is morally abhorant; it’s that the reaction to it stems from the same mindlessness. Perhaps I am too deeply involved in my yoga practice these days and I’m speaking nonsense but if we are really all one – or if we can at least understand that the situation we are in is created by a million different factors that most of us contribute to unwittingly, we would approach him much differently. I see the echoes of this mentality in the way we are handling the sexual discrimination issues. It’s this sort of mindless backlash and this pattern – we just keep repeating it. What would it mean to really think independently right now? Equal rights seems so in vogue. And when things are so in fashion it always seems there is an undercurrent of lack of mindfulness – of conscious thought and choice. When I ask myself – what can I do? Where can I move from here – the answer seems always to be to work on my immediate circle of influence by being a better human being – less so about jumping into the fray and rumbling with people who exhibit racism or sexism etc. any thoughts you have are welcome.
“any thoughts you have are welcome”
“about Trump and it doesn’t seem to me that there is silence from good people, rather there are few good people”
I think this does tie into what MLK was speaking about, he was appealing to the moral conscience of the “good’ people not to remain silent and complicit while Arendt is speaking to a very important point the point at which “good” people who do or should know better go from being “merely” silent and complicit to actions that make one an accomplice and/or collaborator/co-conspirator to a crime(s).
I think is is important if we are speaking about nazi collaborators or the silence and complicity that covers and empowers sexual predators in Hollywood, Silicon valley, corporate ceos, clergy in the church, or little girls gymnast doctor. Or wars,genocides, human rights violations (most of our clothes are made in sweat shops and our electronic devices with slave labor in the making or mining of materials) or the human and sexual slavery etc. we see and hear in the news daily. These perpetrators are only able to do these crimes because or the silence and complicity of their collaborators.
And of course we should look at things that empower all of this
The Know-It-Alls The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball
“Perhaps I am too deeply involved in my yoga practice these days and I’m speaking nonsense but if we are really all one – or if we can at least understand that the situation we are in is created by a million different factors that most of us contribute to unwittingly, we would approach him much differently”
Here I’m inline variously with
Alnoor Ladha on Capitalists and Other Cannibals /49
How Speaking English Impacts Our Relationship With Nature – Arthur Haines #12
An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.
TMHS 240: Happiness Vs. Pleasure And The Hacking Of The American Mind – With Dr. Robert Lustig
“less so about jumping into the fray and rumbling with people who exhibit racism”
“We all changed because we got compassion from people we least deserved it from,” former white supremacist Christian Picciolini and founder of Life After Hate
here’s Christian speaking the Museum of Jewish Heritage
na = not
ma(s) = me
te = you
Jennifer Tejada says
Thank you for the thoughtful reply.
This conversation led me to wonder the following:
In the latest Hollywood sex scandal story, is Aziz Ansari Adolf Eichmann? Or is this just bad sex and an outcome the woman didn’t like? Or are they both Adolf Eichmann and the female is the more obvious victim of the social norm and the first to realize it and perhaps it’s kind of like property – when the lines aren’t clear, the first to steak out the boundary gets to decide? This is what I find so difficult. These social norms that Eichmann had so much trouble fighting against because of his lack of free thinking – how can we know what we don’t know? Sure, murder seems obvious, but some day perhaps all of this “bad sex” will seem obvious too.
I find myself trying to sort out what’s what with regard to things in the news lately and it seems at times as though I don’t have a grounding conscience to guide me. At least not one that I feel comfortable trusting in. So then I listen to stories like Adolf Eichmann’s and think – Jesus – am I this guy? I don’t know how to figure out right from wrong? I find the accusations of some of the men in the current sex scandals to be ridiculou – but are they? Am I socialized to believe that this is ok? And therefore I am furthering the problem? I feel the same about racism and many other things. To the point where I feel I shouldn’t speak because I cannot trust my own beliefs. This kind of confusion is never popular online. There is frequent shaming when people ask questions about the legitimacy of a complaint. And it isn’t even to say that someone cannot feel something that didn’t quite happen the way they saw it. This happens all the time – so where does the responsibility ultimately fall? Should men pick up on any subtle cue that a woman doesn’t want to have sex and really be MORE aware of her issues with powerlessness than her? Or should women take all the responsibility for saying no when it’s not going well and fight centuries of socialization that tell us that that we own men sex somehow? I don’t think there is an easy answer.
Pardon if my connection to Eichmann is lost. I am trying to take the idea that people can get into trouble by not stopping and thinking about the choices they make which may be largely informed by amoral or harmful social norms. Granted, murder seems pretty obvious but this feels like points on a continuum.
Wow you’ve zeroed in on some of the big questions and I don’t know and I don’t think anyone seems to know. There seems to be some what of a shift in that women no longer feel restrained to suffer in silence and society is open to holding men/people accountable but I don’t know. I hope things work out like the timesup charitable fund but it’s set up by women who have huge amounts of money who probably could/should be contributing more. It makes me a little cynical see wealthy business men or football players create a charitable fund and get millions or billions of dollars from well meaning poor people to send to them.
But I watch the stock market it does well and goes up and up when everyone else does terribly and when everyone else does well it goes down. It all seems to profit off the exploitation and misery and suffering of others.
But I don’t know here there much meditate and reflect on.
I’m inclined to think that genocide/mass murder, murder, rape, child molestation are in categories of their own and the people who empower or cover for them (or profit) are accessories to these crimes.
I know very little about the Ansari case they were arguing on t.v. about it and I couldn’t listen with everyone talking over each other.
There have been so many such cases I haven’t kept up with them. So I just don’t know.
I do think there are real issues with wealthy powerful, it seems to be, men use their power and authority to take advantage of and abuse women. Big picture these are the issues that need to be discussed. It seems this would also also need to address why society forces women(or men) have to sell their bodies i.e. prostitutes/porn/strippers etc…
Much of this is addressed in the links above I think but Bell Hooks also adds to the discussion on the roots of male violence against women
“The existence of poverty is the proof of an unjust and ill-organised society, and our public charities are but the first tardy awakening in the conscience of a robber.”
― Sri Aurobindo
I don’t think any of us are Adolf Eichmann. I haven’t read the book, but what I took from the podcast is some relation to evil and grand narratives. It seems to me that something has eclipsed grand narratives. In particular, we seem completely uninterested in military engagements. Libya happened, and we barely noticed. W’s approval rating has climbed into the 60s.
We’ve stopped asking why. The narratives are no longer necessary.
The various “*gates” that dominate the media today will for the most part disappear in six months. When one goes out of fashion (or is proven objectively wrong), another appears in its place. They’re tiny, insignificant things. The hypocrisy of the FISA 702 vote (Dems voted to expand Trump’s [“Stalin’s”] domestic surveillance powers.) reveals the hollowness of our 21st-Century political narratives.
Political “radicals” everywhere you look, but I can’t imagine one dying for their beliefs. I’m not a psychologist, but my hunch is that the climate you’re describing is something different than pre-digital *isms.
Evan Hadkins says
With regard to the female sexual harassment thing. I think we can be sure that if men were treated by women as women are treated by men there’d be outcry. So I do think that it is very likely this is injustice and violation.
Arendt I don’t see giving guidance on what it would mean to think well (regresses threaten).
I do think she implicitly endorses something like empathy – being able to put yourself in another’s shoes. Which I think is a pretty good guideline. I suppose the closes academic elaboration of this is care ethics.
Jennifer Tejada says
I think we are all Adolf Eichmann. I think nothing has been made so clear to me than with the rise up of women against non-consensual sexual advances. The movements and hashtags may seriously diminish the oppression of women due to their lack of conscience but I am finally starting to see the problem. I am blown away in the fact that I couldn’t see it before. Not really. I rolled my eyes at some of the accusations. And the way I myself participate in perpetuating the oppressive social norms – is alarming. The way we all do. It’s crazy. I had sort of a light bulb moment about all this recently. I didn’t read the book. I listened to some of it. I don’t know if I am completely misusing him in this metaphor. But for me, the way we can have a culture which controls us so much and undetected – like the air we breathe – is alarming. Even if the connection I am making is quite loose, to the point of inaccuracy – it’s neither here nor there to me. The point to me is that we have to be extremely critical of norms we follow and be able to even see them. Playing dumb or small, having obligatory sex, allowing disrespectful comments from older people – these are all things I do without batting an eye. When a person makes a racist comment we don’t say – come on, that’s nothing even close to lynching. We say, that’s effed up and won’t be tolerated. So that’s about where I am.
JT, we are all to some degree complicit (knowingly and unknowingly) in systems that inflict all manner of hardships and horrors on others and there is no simple (or even complex) equation available for us to calculate when and what is enough, where to draw the line, etc. In general with human affairs we are always making it up as we go (and or acting out versions of what others have made up previously), part of why philosophical principles are of limited value (can even become blinders) in actual ethics, the philosopher/theologian John D Caputo has an interesting book along these lines called Against Ethics and here are some related thoughts by Paul Rabinow on assembling ethics in an ecology of ignorance: https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/oww-files-public/7/7a/SB1.0_Rabinow.pdf
Jennifer Tejada says
Hi dmf, That was a really interesting lecture/paper. I haven’t watched the full video you shared below, but plan to. I’ll need to reread, but what you and Rabinow said was very helpful .I find myself, at 39, in the sort of mental space of a high schooler. I am ok with that. The religious world I grew up in didn’t leave a lot of space for free thinking and that combined with other factors have shifted that kind of exploration for this time of my life. So it’s interesting that you say that ethics and philosophy can be a hinderance. I am finding it to be like my 4 years of high school French – lot of disparate pieces that provide a sort of false feeling of knowing something yet upon arrival to France I realize I cannot do the primary thing for which the classes are intended – speak with French people. Wading through ethics and ideas of the self have led me to a similar space – I still know nothing about how to really be. I just see more of what’s not ok. I’m still an infant in my learning so maybe there is still hope, but maybe it’s kind of like French too – stop learning and just spend a month in France! Anyway – I’m sure all this wonder has larger psychological implications about my life.
JT, I think coming to it all later may be in some ways better in that you have both a clear sense of not having mastery (people who are well socialized in academic fields like philo often confuse being a good student with being able to make their way in the world) and have a desire to see how these ideas work or not in the context of your life and not just on the page.
Not sure if this matches your own experience but I find that late comers (via AA and other recovery programs) to Christianity like Anne Lamott and Mary Karr don’t fall into the same traps of being self-satisfied as most folks who have been socialized their whole lives in their faith traditions, they have some other context, a sense of their limits, and a sense of having been given another chance, some breathing room if you will.
Anyway glad that some of this is of some use/interest, you might like the book The Plain Sense of Things by the later philosopher James C Edwards.
Jennifer Tejada says
Thanks dmf; I love on being! I also love Anne Lamott and Mary Karr. It’s funny because I heard the Mary Karr onbeing episode when it first came out, but it popped up as a new episode on the onbeing app! I saw it as a sign to listen again. I loved it even more the second time. Thanks for sharing. I will look into the Plain Sense of Things by James C Edwards even though my New Year’s Resolution was to stop reading stuff ala PEL readings and start reading fiction for enjoyment purposes only. Speaking of onbeing, I just listened to Kevin Kelly – The Universe is a Question. On this journey I realize I am looking for answers, which is why I am often frustrated with PEL – because they never seem to land on a final decision about what the dead philosophers have to say. They just sort of hold the ideas in mind as they carry on through more readings. I want answers! And I am starting to realize that there are no answers, only really good questions, which will ultimately help me find my way. So annoying..lol. Turns out certainty isn’t something I’ll ever have. OH THE HUMANITY!!. Thanks again, dmf.
my pleasure, reading for enjoyment sounds like a good way to go, some of us are odd enough to enjoy entertaining philosophical ideas/readings but it’s certainly a minority aesthetic.
“It’s this sort of mindless backlash and this pattern – we just keep repeating it. What would it mean to really think independently right now? Equal rights seems so in vogue. And when things are so in fashion it always seems there is an undercurrent of lack of mindfulness – of conscious thought and choice.”
this gets to the sort of Heideggerian heart of Arendt (in my limited study of her work) as a call to Thinking versus gossip (in-group signaling, etc), the difficulty I find when one starts to think systemically (bring forward the generally hidden/ignored background) is that there is very little one can actually do about wicked problems, being as widespread and complex as they are, exceeding our grasps if you will.
So how to bear this tragic recognition that we are so weak and vulnerable, that as Heidegger noted only a God could save us mere mortals?
Jennifer Tejada says
I love that there is a term for this. Wicked Problem. There is an overwhelm from these wicked problems that makes way for apathy or give-upedness, acquiescence, resignation – you get the gist – which I thought I could only feel due to my white privilege. Now with the whole issue surrounding sexism being so top of mind, I think – geez this is getting confusing. But that’s the hard work of it right? Finding out how to begin to change things and solve problems without relying the same kind of thinking that got us here in the first place. I think these are the growing pains in the arc toward justice. Still my only answer is mindful living and a belief that if I am open things will be made aware to me. I wish I could, like Heidegger, believe in God — wait – or did he? 😉
“But that’s the hard work of it right? Finding out how to begin to change things and solve problems without relying the same kind of thinking that got us here in the first place.”
I don’t think that is the hard work ( tho overcoming habits is hard in its own way) in these sorts of matters (not talking about how to treat other individuals as with many of the sexual violence/oppression cases here but more about systemic/wicked issues), I think that the truly tragic part is coming to terms with our limits (my sense is that Heidegger was gesturing to this aspect of our being mortals in his God comment)., coming to terms with the fact that our being aware of problems doesn’t offer ready/practicable solutions and that we are quickly reaching some very real (but largely unimaginable) limits to life and resources like clean water and air in terms of the environment and all.
I get the rhetorical appeal of the arc towards justice but in terms of understanding history one has to ‘smooth’ away (as we do with statistical modeling) too many current and past hardships/horrors for most people (Hegel spoke monstrously of it as a butchers-block) to take that as more than waxing theological.
I was thinking of Arendt this week while watching some PBS shows on whistleblowers in the worlds of business/finance and how they took the hard stands, got blackballed, and yet the people in power largely went unpunished and even where some were charged the systems carried on more or less unchanged (tho many are now about to get a whole lot worse).
So how to come to terms with deep and enduring (perhaps even ontological if one is so inclined) impotence and vulnerability?
“Equal rights seems so in vogue. ” and that’s all it is. The paychecks haven’t changed, in fact, women have lost ground since the 1980’s.
Jennifer Tejada says
Ugh – that’s discouraging. And though watching the super bowl should be the last place I would ever look to for a sign of our progression, I was particularly dismayed. The commercial where the Olympic female skier signs her autograph with A.B.F.T.T.B. (Always be faster than the boys.) felt like a huge miss. Filtering our identity through the male standard is really a tiresome old song and dance.
In this episode, Wes mentions that a person, rationalizing why they should be treated better than busboys because they “worked hard and got an education”, was actually code for “I sacrificed part of my psyche in devotion to my pursuit of status”. This comment caught me off guard and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it the past couple of days. Can someone point me to some relevant literature on this? I’d like to look into this idea more. Thanks!
Wes Alwan says
Sorry — I can’t point you to anything. Just something I’ve thought about a bit.
Michael Hardaker says
I appreciate it all the same. I’ve struggled with that idea lately, since I am about to leave a well paying career half way to retirement and slide back down the social ladder, which has produced a bit of anxiety. But the way you put it makes the subscription to that devotion seem so voluntary. So cheers to that.
Evan Hadkins says
The second half of Perls, Hefferline and Goodman (the theory part) addresses this somewhat – they try to take seriously that the person is always social – and that behaviour makes sense in the current situation.
Evan Hadkins says
If you could follow up on Seth’s observation about the difference between meeting people and subsuming them under a category (my paraphrase), that would be fantastic.
Not sure how you’d do it. Something about Virtue Ethics? Michael Slote has a book, From Enlightenment to Receptivity, that sort of touches on this.
Brian Wise says
To bring this to a very current issue, what do y’all think about Trump’s new nominee for CIA head, Gina Haspel? There are a lot of parallels with her story and Eichmann’s (much less dramatic, but still wrong). When asked about why she used water boarding and then destroyed evidence, she said she was just following orders.
Howie P.C. Id says