We all know what Evil is. It’s the “boogeyman”, a Bond Villain, Hitler. The boogeyman and Blofeld (Bond’s main villain), being inventions, can be evil for no reason other than “for evil’s sake”. Hitler, on the other hand, is more complicated because, frankly, evil is more complicated. Yes, what Hitler did was flat out evil. What Robert Mugabbe did or a Pol Pot or Stalin — all recognizably evil. But all of these men share one common feature: they weren’t exceptional people. They were all, in fact, quite banal as humans if separated from their evil.
German philosopher Hannah Arendt caused a huge stir when she first described evil as more “banal” than anything else. That means evil is more prevalent, easier to spread and harder to stop. The problem is, Evil has a point of view. Dig into a Hitler and you discover the context (the socio-political environment of Weimar Germany) in which Hitler happened. It certainly doesn’t excuse the evil that flowed from Hitler’s fascism, but it explains why it happened.
And it explains why it’s happened — and is happening — again.
Evil, it turns out, is complicated. So complicated, it turns out, that we’re doing it in two parts (as if that would be enough!) It also turns out that Evil is a very personal subject…
NOTES & SOURCES
Everyone has an opinion. That doesn’t mean their opinion is right — factually or morally. Some peoples’ opinions are, in fact, downright immoral.
I’d even say evil — because by design they hurt people. Or worse.
For the record — I didn’t always hate Trump. I never cared about him enough to think much about him except as an occasional guest on the Howard Stern show. I started disliking Trump — maybe even hating him — after I heard him say — on the air (with my own ears) how, if his daughter Ivanka wasn’t his daughter, he’d be dating her.
I started thinking differently about Donald Trump that day. I started thinking “this is a terrible man, a terrible father”.
That wasn’t a political reaction, it was a moral reaction to something I find, frankly repugnant. I find it immoral. I find it evil, frankly — because it touches on something that happened to me.
More on THE BANALITY OF EVIL…
Strip all politics out of Mary L Trump, PhD’s surprising book “Too Much And Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man” and you get a picture of the most banal evil — Donald Trump screwing his own family — his own brother — out of sheer greed.
Just before he died in June 1999 — already deep into dementia — Fred Trump, Sr. (Donald Trump’s father and Mary Trump’s grandfather) changed his will — cutting out Fred, Jr. and Fred Jr’s entire family. We now know why: because Donald Trump had coerced his ailing father into putting virtually the entire family fortune into Donald’s hands. Donald Trump was already deeply in debt.
The picture Mary Trump paints of her grandfather is a portrait of evil. Banal evil. Evil born of greed and zero humanity. That evil, Mary Trump writes, flowed into Donald (and other parts of her family).
Fred Trump, Jr had resisted being part of the family business. He loved flying and (over his father’s wishes) became a pilot for TWA. But Fred Sr’s hold was unbearable. Knowing his father called him a “bus driver in the sky”, Fred Jr drank heavily. His drinking cost him the job he loved. It was a vicious circle.
Even when he returned to the fold of the family business, Fred Jr was ostracized. He’d stepped outside the “law” his father had laid down. Fred Sr was especially incensed at his son for joining the Air Force National Guard. Risking one’s life for other people was not something Trump’s did.
Lying & cheating were what one did.
Fred, Jr. died in 1981, broken and depressed. From the moment that happened, Donald Trump began to plot against Fred, Jr’s family much as he had plotted against his brother. Whatever inclination Fred, Sr might have had to forgive his oldest son, Donald fought. He fed Fred, Sr lies about Fred, Jr.
Here’s what banal evil did: when Fred, Sr. died, Donald — now running the company and controlling the family fortune — cut off Fred, Jr’s family. First, they disinherited them. Completely. Fred, Jr’s share of the family fortune was divided between the four other siblings (though Donald controlled its disbursement). Then they took away the medical insurance that every other member of the family got and relied on.
This was especially hard on Fritz Trump, Mary Trump’s brother. Fritz’s Trump’s son had a severe form of epilepsy and required constant health care.
Fred, Jr’s crime? The thing that made him “deserving” of this treatment by his own brother? Perceived weakness.
Politics did not motivate Mary Trump to write her book. A sense of decency did. She knew something about her uncle that we all needed to know: he’s nothing like what he says he is. Rather, he’s evil. And he’s trying to make his evil our permanent problem.
Hannah Arendt “The Banality Of Evil”
From The New Yorker
A Reporter at LargeFebruary 16, 1963 Issue
Eichmann in Jerusalem—I
By Hannah Arendt, February 9, 1963
Eichmann, Arendt said, for all his evil, was entirely “banal”. It angers people sometimes to hear this. They want evil to be EVIL — like a villain in a story. They want all evil people to be Nosferatu-obvious
But that’s not what most evil looks like. That was Arendt’s point. It doesn’t look “extraordinary” or “super human”. It’s quite ordinary. Quite human. And quite pervasive as a result.
“the sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil”
OTHER EXAMPLES OF BANAL EVIL
1– The Standford Prison Experiment — in which university students were recruited as guards or prisoners. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-real-lesson-of-the-stanford-prison-experiment
2– Jeffrey Dahmer
3– YEHUDA DICKSTEIN
Yehuda Dickstein is the man who sexually molested me twice when I was 14. He was the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged.
What he did to me — considering what it nearly did to me — was EVIL. At its MOST banal…
The geography of hate: How anti-Semitism in interwar Germany was influenced by the medieval mass murder of Jews
By Nico Voigtländer, Hans-Joachim Voth 22 May 2011 — published by https://voxeu.org/ which publishes research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists.
“Towns that murdered their Jews during the Black Death (1348-1350) were also much more likely to commit violence or engage in anti-Semitic acts in interwar Germany, nearly 600 years later. This suggests racial hatred can persist over centuries.
When the Black Death struck in Europe, it caused a demographic catastrophe without precedent. Between 30% and 70% of the population died. No disease within living memory had spread so quickly causing such massive numbers of deaths. As populations searched for an explanation for this sudden epidemic, their attention turned to the Jews. After one tortured Jew “confessed” to poisoning the wells, pogroms occurred in many towns in Northern Europe. Switzerland, Northern France, Germany, and the Low Countries witnessed attacks, often before the Black Death reached them (Cohn 2007). The case of Basel is paradigmatic. On 9 January 1349, approximately 600 Jews were gathered in a wooden house, specially constructed for the purpose, on an island in the river Rhine. There they were burned. Contemporary chronicles recorded the events, and in some of them, elaborate wood-prints depict them in graphic detail (see Figure 1).
But — what if we flip the point of view and consider — Evil’s POV
From Evil’s point of view, whatever terrible thing it’s doing is completely justified.
That doesn’t mean that it is. After all — this is Evil justifying itself. That fact never stops being a fact. Evil absolutely has a point of view. The loaded question is “But does it have a ‘legitimate’ point of view — a moral point of view?
Do all points of view have to be “moral” and “legitimate”?
But — here’s the problem: CAN EVIL EXIST IN A MORAL VACUUM, ENTIRELY RELATIVE?
That IS how Holocausts begin…
Well, those of you who are Trump supporters and still listening, good job. You are actually expressing a character trait that is sorely lacking in this country. You are willing to listen to the opinions of someone who does not agree with you. And, as Alan wrote in the intro to the discussion, “ One side’s evil is the other side’s point of view except they don’t see their point of view as evil.” As a nation we have two sides who see the other side as evil or, at least, supporting evil. The only way out, as our culture’s discussion on race is showing us, is learning to listen to one another’s point of view, taking it in and continuing the conversation.
When I was a pastor in a church in Los Angeles, one of my goals was to have a congregation that could be home to people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. It wasn’t easy. Issues of injustice and evil regularly emerged over the 13 years there that some of the congregants wanted me, and through me, the entire congregation to take a stand on. Some issues were on the political left and some on the political right. But, unlike other pastors on both sides, I refused. My goal was to form a community that transcended the political “walls of division” and offered a way forward. You see, this wall of division is, in my mind, the most insidious issue we have today in the United States. And, at least in my understanding of evil, you have to go under the surface issues to get to the heart of the problem.
Evil often tricks us. It seeks to make us attack and destroy at the surface. Like those weeds so many of us fight in our yards, we can rip off the tops, but the roots remain, ready to shoot up in different forms and different ways. You see this with the perennial human problem of evil and injustice. Again and again evil and injustice grows until enough people rise up and overthrow the perpetrators. Then they expect peace to prevail. It may, for a time, but then evil, like that weed, comes back again and we repeat the cycle. To deal with true evil is to look below the surface, until you see the roots and pull them out. But this is not easy.
I want to highlight two of the challenges of fighting evil which, I believe, only perpetuate evil. One is defending ourselves by setting our identity over against others. Think of it as a concentric circle. We, of course, are at the center of the identity and then others are closer or further away from the identity by how well they reflect us and our values. Then there is a boundary, at some point, which means that people are no longer “of our identity”. They are “other”. They are no longer “our neighbor” but our enemy. They threaten our identity. This allows us to justify doing all kinds of things to them that we would never do to people who are within our concentric circle.
This then motivates the second challenge of fighting evil. Because now we have simplified evil. It is sourced, not in humanity, but in our enemy. Personifying evil in our enemy certainly makes things easier, at least in the short term. The plan is simple: get rid of the enemy and you will get rid of the evil.
When we fall into either of these traps we ourselves perpetuate the evil that we are fighting against. Our evil may not look like the evil we are fighting. But it is simply evil in another form.
Given this common experience of humanity throughout our existence, it is not surprising that evil and injustice are central to human spirituality. Many spiritual/religious approaches, however, begin by acknowledging that evil is something we are all caught up in.
Samsara, for example, in Buddhist thought, is the continuous cycle of birth, life and death without beginning or end. This cycle is filled with suffering. And it is this cycle that Buddha sought to transcend. The evil is this endless cycle of suffering. The way to deal with it is not to rid ourselves of our enemy or to reform society. It is to seek to transcend it.
Christianity, too, places evil and suffering right at the center of the faith. The crucifixion of Jesus, God’s son, expresses both the suffering and injustice of the world that we are all caught up in and at the same time the defeat of evil and the opening of a new way of life in human history. It is through trusting and being forgiven by and following Jesus that one begins to work through evil and suffering that pervades human life and develop relationships and community which reflects that new reality (albeit incompletely).
The question is often more important than the answer; at least if we are really trying to create good in the world. This is because the question is directed by assumptions about the problem we are trying to solve. We have to test the assumptions beneath the question. Otherwise we may be asking the wrong question. A question narrowed by incorrect assumptions makes it much more difficult to bring about real change.
Take Alan‘s question at the end of the last podcast. “Can we compromise with evil?“
There are a whole set of assumptions behind this question. For the purposes of this podcast, two are most critical. First, that we have an objective view of evil. The question is posed in such a way that we are uncompromised with the evil we are discussing. It is wholly other and we are looking down upon it needing to determine it’s fate. This surfaces the second assumption; that we are at a tipping point in history which, if things go the wrong way, it will be catastrophic. These two assumptions give urgency to our response and narrow it down to two answers. Either we eradicate this evil or do we get our hands dirty by not bringing down the hammer of justice as the situation, and our future, demands?
Both of these assumptions are problematic from a general human point of view and more specifically from a Christian point of view. We are not objective when it comes to evil and this election is not a tipping point in history (unless we make it one).
First, Christians believe the human race is already compromised by evil. The story of human compromise begins with Adam and Eve. The point of the story is clear whether you take it literally or not. In Genesis 3 the first humans made a choice to compromise with evil. Over the next 8 chapters that decision impacted all aspects of human life and brought us to where we are today. Genesis 3 was developed theologically by St. Augustine (4th century) and given a creative, literary shape in Milton’s Paradise Lost about 1,000 years later. Throughout this development it was clear that evil is something that has compromised all of humanity (and had a significant effect on nature). We can’t take an objective view of evil.
Second, we simply are not in a situation, as a nation, in which this election will decide our fate. I was ordained as a pastor in Mozambique, in Southern Africa. My wife and I arrived in the country after 40 years of brutal civil war. The rebels had eagerly destroyed all of the infrastructure in the country as part of their “strategy”. Over 1 million people had died from the fighting or from starvation in a country whose population was about 14 million people. 5.7 million of the surviving were displaced internally and another 1.7 were refugees in other countries. Now that is a tipping point. Yet life continues in Mozambique. We are nowhere near this kind of a tipping point in the United States. Further, I lived in Zimbabwe under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. A Zimbabwean human rights lawyer “disappeared” while I was there. Yet, as in Mozambique, life goes on. It isn’t easy. But it continues.
Let me suggest a better question. It isn’t riddled with panic or assuming an objective point of view. It has its own assumptions. But I believe it will be a much more helpful question so that we might bring real change. Here it is: How did we get to this point as a nation, that our two presidential candidates are white, male, septuagenarians? And, a corollary question: How will we move from here to create good in our country?