Banality of Heroism

Wow! I’m speechless!

Open Source » Blog Archive » The Banality of Evil, Part II

Well, ok. Not completely speechless. Not even one of the most insightful interviews I’ve heard in a long long while can make me speechless… 😉

For one thing, this is one occasion on which Radio Open Source host Christopher Lydon in fact let his interviewee’s voice get through to the audience. It makes a tremendous difference from his usual “I-show” attitude.

This show helped me connect many of the threads I’ve been thinking about (and been teaching) for a while: constructivism, constructionism, relativism, moralism, moral relativism, contextualism, judgment, American exceptionalism, ethics, power, identity, labeling, stigmatisation, social structure, social pressure, peer pressure, hierarchy, non-conformism, heroism, social support, organic relationships, humanism, envy, greed, self-importance, roles, social status, achievements, subversion, egalitarianism, ordered anarchy, satisfaction, academic research, intellectualism, anarchy, activism, personality, sociocentrism, socio-constructivism, socialisation, enculturation, informal learning, social networks, networking, social mobility, social dynamics, wisdom of crowds, groupthink, social contract, social butterfly effect, social amnesia, selfishness, egocentrism, ethnocentrism, institutionalism, grassroots movements, self-righteousness, intellectuals, idealism, atheism, essentialism, universalism, indivudualism, identity negotiation, social change, free will, experimentation, face-saving, end of innocence, naïveté, communities, teams, bands, gangs, discrimination…

Or, maybe I make too much out of this… 😉

5 thoughts on “Banality of Heroism”

  1. I once had a huge conversation with a Québécois intellectual whom I won’t name about Evil. It seems that the experience of nazism is a trauma embedded deep in the West’s psyche. For many people it is proof that absolute Evil, incomprehensible, undefinable, unexplainable evil exists. And that gives them an acquired “right” to sniff it out elsewhere and fight it. It’s a weird kind of guilt-trip where others are punished for what the West has done in the past … I mean the trauma is double-fold, how coud we do THIS ( slaughtering people for no reason) and how could WE, the modern, rational advanced West do it? And if WE, the pinnacle of “evolution” could do it, imagine those others who we regard as way behind us … So the only way to explain all of this, and take the pressure off US, we just decide, well it’s not really US, it’s a bigger force than us, it’s something that we can’t explain, and so we can’t be libel for, it’s pure and simple Evil. And so instead of asking the question, why would rational human beings act like animals and take a good look at all the conditions, decisions and reflections that converged and made killing in the minds of ordinary human beings a justifiable and rational act, people put the blame on Evil. It is much scarier to think that Hitler was no .more inherently evil than you and me, that he was a human being and yes, human beings are capable of killing in vicious ways each other. It is much more difficult to take responsibility for that and ask, WHY, why would someone like him become something like that? But why is never asked, you risk being accused of being a Hitler sympathizer …

    It’s the same thing with Bin Laden, much easier to call him evil, a lunatic, a devil, a demon … much harder to think of him as human product of 60 years of US policy in the Middle-East.

    I don’t believe Evil exists as an autonomoous, absolute entity. I think human beings, the thinking creatures they are, are capable of convincing themselves of the rationality of doing even the most horrendous of acts. In that regards, the prison experiment is quite eloquent ( there was a German movie made based on the experiment by the way a couple of years ago)


  2. You put it more forcefully than I would, but we share many of the same ideas. Not sure if it’s because we’re both anthropologists or if we became anthropologists because of those ideas. I prefer to adopt a holistic, non-deterministic approach to the subject.
    As you observe, WW2 is still on the mind of most “Westerners.” It was a defining moment in the history of Euro-American Judeo-Christian industrialized “Nations.” That conflict is a constant reference in political discourse. The memory of atrocities during that period of time erases from consciousness many events in the history of the last two hundred years. The Third Reich is a symbol of absolute negation. Especially in the United States where many people see the country as the savior in the conflict.

    The show on Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” concept was trying to answer some of those questions about what makes people evil from a moralist’s perspective. Lydon, the Open Source host, clearly cherishes the idea that there might be such a thing as absolute morality and immorality. A fan of Emerson, Lydon adopts “transcendentalism” in a very moralistic, Anglo-American, Judeo-Christian, individualist, liberal way. He’s open to secularism and “progressive ideas” but his worldview is very specific. Because he tends to be a domineering figure in his shows, the dynamic is fascinating.
    Arendt did have a lot of important things to say about WW2 and her explanations are quite compatible with U.S. moralism. Can’t say I either disagree or agree with her ideas. I don’t tend to think about issues in the same way as she did but she sounded like a fascinating and insightful person.
    This show on Zimbardo was, to me, much more interesting than the Arendt one. Zimbardo didn’t seek to wash responsibility away from inappropriate behaviour. He did show, however, the mechanism involved in specific cases of abuse of power. To me, much of Zimbardo’s comments on this show were very insightful. And strikingly different from much of what I heard in the U.S. about “evil” and morality. What’s really neat, in my opinion, is that he defined “evil” as an inappropriate use of power to control others, not as an intention to do harm or a lack of a “moral fiber.”
    I specifically didn’t read anything on the page for this Open Source episode. Comments from the show’s team or regular commentators tend to be quite U.S.-specific and, to be honest, I was afraid that they had missed the insight of Zimbardo’s comments. The whole show did make me think about all the concepts I list in this blog entry. Much of it summarized by outsiders to anthropology under the heading of “moral relativism” (with associated nasty comments). I often feel that I have to come out of the closet as a relativist but I get tired of the misrepresentation of relativism by opinionated moralists. Including many “progressives,” “secularists,” and anti-racists.
    Clear explanations are sometimes needed, for such concepts.
    One of the textbooks I’ve used in the past (Schultz and Lavenda) is quite clear about the need to study things that we may not condone. They did use WW2 as one of their main examples and I do tend to use the Third Reich example to get the point across: no anthropologist I know agrees with much anything that the regime has done but if we are to prevent a similar regime from rising up again, we need to understand the mechanisms which made its rise possible in the first place. Given our background, it’s quite impossible to assume that the whole movement was based in a flaw of the “German mind.” After all, many non-Germans participated in the atrocities and several Germans were clearly against the regime. Without sounding too much like Rousseau, we can’t assume that the people involved were simply born “evil.” So, something happened and it is essential that we know what.
    Much of these issues were spelled out very clearly in the Arendt show but many people involved in that episode seem to assume that there is such a thing as absolute Evil and absolute Good. I just can’t assume the appropriateness of these concepts.

    What you say about demonization is important, to me. In my mind, it’s one of the problems with the political climate in the United States. Those who demonize the other side are emphasizing a division which is rather artificial. The “Culture Wars” in the U.S. are often fought with a self-righteous sense of morality, on either side. With accusations that the other side shows no understanding of real morality.
    What’s funny is that the parties’ political lateralization has shifted over a fairly short period of time yet people keep thinking that the whole issue is “Left and Right.” I don’t find this simplistic dualism any more useful than Manichean “Good vs. Evil” simplistic moralism in sitcoms or in politics.

    As always, thanks for thought-provoking and honest comments! 😉

  3. Great dialoguing with you too, especially on lazy sundays. I do allow myself less nuance and a bit more forcefulness when I comment on blogs. I leave the nuancing for my texts, and presentations. On the other hand, I wouldn’t risk commenting in this way on a “stranger’s” blog. I take for granted that you know me and that we are both anthropologists and so can allow ourselves some risky thinking without being fearful of stereotyping or knee-jerk reactions.

    I know what you mean by moral relativism becoming some kind of a crime. I call them the new Gods of our era: Good Evil, Freedom, Democracy, Human Rights, etc. Try relativizing those without being accused of all sorts of things.


    PS. Arendt has the credit of positioning herself against the zionist project when she was first for it, after she quickly uncovered the flawed mythology behind it and the consequences it would have on Palestine’s natives: christian, muslim and jew alike. I’m grateful for that, even though the zionist movement was nevertheless successful.

  4. Funny that you should say this about commenting on friends’ blogs. I make the same difference as I tend to be a bit bolder elsewhere than on my own blog. Maybe it’s a common tendency for bloggers to adopt a commentator persona on other blogs.
    About Arendt, it does sound like she was always mindful and unafraid of changing her mind. At least, that’s what the show demonstrated.
    About showing the cultural specificity of Human Rights, it can work in the right context, even with non-anthros, but it takes a lot of care. Even with some anthro seniors, it was a bit hard for me to discuss these issues. That’s why I’m so glad that some people involved in humanitarian aid are willing to talk about what’s behind the “development” philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *