The banality of banality

In describing Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi officer who dutifully accounted for the genocide of nearly uncountable victims of Hitler’s Nazi terror and extermination, author Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. In Arendt’s evaluation, Eichmann was not an enthusiastic Nazi true believer, but rather an ordinary, single-minded bureaucrat unable to comprehend the gravity of his actions. His actions were evil, but he, she surmised, was not.

Arendt wrote, “Eichmann ‘never realized what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘committed crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he was doing wrong’.” In other words, Eichmann lacked empathy.

It’s worthwhile to examine evil actions – and how they arise – in America today. In simplest terms, we might propose that “evil is as evil does,” which is to say the origins of evil are largely irrelevant and not worth our time contemplating; it’s behavior that matters. From this perspective, psychologizing America is a fool’s errand; the reasons that contribute to evil actions are so diverse and complicated any attempt to evaluate them is doomed to the failure of interpretation.

Author James Baldwin strikes this theme in an essay derived from a lecture he gave in 1960, in which he referred to “the bottomless confusion which is both public and private, of the American republic.” Baldwin continues, “to try and find out what Americans mean is almost impossible because there are so many things they do not want to face.” I’d go further and offer the opinion that Americans not only do not want to face themselves but no longer have the ability to do so; Americans have lost the ability to think.

It was once believed that the purpose of education was to teach one to think, that knowledge and facts were not the subjects of education, but rather the objects of reason. It was the development of critical thinking skills – analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, self-regulation, open-mindedness, and problem-solving – that mattered, and they still do, but these are reasoning skills that must be taught and practiced before they are mastered. Instead, American education has become the by-product of memorizing and regurgitating answers to multiple-choice questions on standardized tests; educationally, the tail is wagging the dog.

In reviewing this situation in yet another essay, Baldwin goes on to state that “We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.” In other words, our system of education creates and rewards banality, the collection of facts but the inability to connect or analyze them. This results in ease of manipulation. When we are unable to apply critical thinking skills, we are susceptible to believing whatever we are told, no matter how illogical or fantastic.

The matter is further complicated by what today constitutes fact. In the absence of critical thinking skills, almost any pronouncement can be taken as fact and distinguishing between belief and truth becomes impossible. Reliable sources, accurate news reporting, and journalistic investigations all become secondary to dime-a-dozen opinions from which we choose, based upon individual and collective bias.

As to the significance of evil, perhaps Hannah Arendt had it backwards, and instead should have described “the evil of banality.”

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