Banality of Evil

eichmann

Banality [buh-nal-i-teeof evil is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt and incorporated in the title of her 1963 work ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’ It describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

Explaining this phenomenon, media analyst Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of ‘normalizing the unthinkable.’ According to him, ‘doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as ‘the way things are done.’

Reicher and Haslam have challenged Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. They agree that ordinary people can commit evil actions, but they assert that it is not simply a matter of  ‘blind people following orders.’ They point to historical and psychological evidence that suggest that ordinary people become evil when they identify with evil ideology. They cite Cesarani’s ‘Eichmann: His Life and Crimes,’ as ‘suggesting that Arendt’s analysis was, at best, naive.’ In his work, Cesarani claims Arendt only attended the beginning of Eichmann’s trial and missed the defendant’s more revealing admissions.

The author recalls that Eichmann spoke proudly of the creative measures with which he executed Hitler’s policy. To Cesarani, this was indicative of an active involvement in evil, not just a passive following of orders. Reicher and Haslam have also reinterpreted the findings of a number of landmark psychological cases, including Milgram’s obedience studies and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment to conclude that people follow ideology, not just orders.

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