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Posts Tagged ‘the banality of evil’

Earlier today I was writing about The System, and the behaviors which have led us into all our current crises. I was thinking about the enormous challenges facing humanity, about the common ostrich-desire to avoid these problems as long as possible, to get what they can while they can.  Why do people who think of themselves as good allow so many bad things to happen in their name?  Why do many of us seem to have an inability to think of the long-term? Is there something uniquely wrong with us?

Yes, and no.

I am going to talk a little about what I think makes people do “bad” things. It feels a bit naive on my part, but maybe that’s part of the problem. It may sound (and probably  is) too ambitious, or a waste of time, whatever. But well,  these are just my own insights and observations.

As I have looked around the world, I have noticed a few constants. First, most people want to think of themselves as good. Second, most people value themselves more than others. I guess that’s natural, whatever ‘natural’ even means. Third, as much as people want to think of themselves as good, they also want to be liked, usually by as many people as possible. People like to be impressive. That’s also normal, I guess. But the second and third things can lead individuals to do absolutely rotten things, and they will excuse it under the fact that they think of themselves as good. They will push away anything which challenges the status quo or their self-perception.

I’m lucky in a way most people wouldn’t consider lucky. I grew up with, let’s say, ‘interesting’ parents. They certainly didn’t value money or power or popularity, and they had all sorts of funny ideas. As for me, I absolutely loathed bullies. I was shy. I was empathetic to the point of feeling paralyzed by embarrassment for another classmate, or sadness for others. I would see children at school do vicious things to fit in; sometimes to me, sometimes to others who lacked a killer instinct, or were awkward, a little too smart or not-quite-smart-enough. I had no desire to retaliate, but I desired to protect all the other misfits. I learned quickly that not conforming can be extremely painful. Most of the kids grew up and chilled out. But as I’ve gone through life, I can’t help but remember that so many kids were ready to humiliate, to spread malicious lies and rumors, to make others miserable. The rest just stood by and watched; better us than them. There were others who rejected the whole system didn’t have chance, rougher kids who had dirty mouths but far more decency.  As for me, I know there are reasons why people are cruel or selfish, and those people should be met with love, knowledge, and ultimately forgiveness.  Though, personally, I still do try to avoid being good friends with assholes.

Witnessing and enduring that sort of suffering made me think about the small horrors people are capable of. I don’t feel like a victim in the least, but I do feel a need to protect others. It also taught me the value of self-examination.

Most people do small, petty things at various moments in their lives, but they excuse themselves in the grand scheme of things because it’s much more comfortable to think of yourself as a good person. This is one of the basic facts of human existence. The big wrongs happen when this seemingly small trait is manifested on a much larger scale. There’s a video somewhere of  environmental protesters who showed up at an oil executive’s house in England. The protesters were doing their thing, and the very polite couple came out to talk to them. They were accessible and reasonable, explaining they were just two people in an enormous system. They weren’t criminals, but normal kind people who wanted to live in peace and be happy. They were very calm facing the anger of the protesters, and nearly seemed to want to offer them milk and cookies.

But that’s the huge problem, this is what I am talking about in regards to ends and means. Well-intentioned people work in the office all day, go home and play with their kids, give money to charities. Some are Republicans, some are Democrats. They also work for a system which puts profit before all else. John Calvin, who wrought some great evils himself, once said the human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols.” He wasn’t wrong about this. I use the word worship in the sense that though many say they do not worship God, nearly everyone has their own personal idol. Some worship the good. Some worship humanity. Some worship intelligence, some worship cynicism. Some just worship having fun.

Most idols seem dangerous to me, because attachment to an idol excludes an ability to remove one’s passions and view what good and evil the idol is capable of in and of itself. It leads to an inability to empathize with those who go against one’s idol. Think of those who demonize science because of their religious fundamentalism. Or, to risk my head, those who attack religion as the greatest evil in the world because a good many religious people are ignorant assholes. The world is, for the most part, not made of saintly religious people or saintly scientists. Similarly, Republicans and Democrats demonize one another. Some idols may be better than others, but nonetheless our idols can make us do evil things because we have made something more important than people: an ideology (and yes, pleasure-loving is an ideology too, it’s just an extra stupid one). In the worship and identification with an idol, all that is Other loses at least some of its value . “I love democracy, it is the most important thing in the world, so whatever I do for democracy must ultimately be good.” Democracy is now a little bit more important than people, and it is a little bit easier to defend bad things because they have a seemingly good end.

The most common idol, to me, seems to be plain old self-interest-I-look-out-for-me-first-life-is-short-and-I-want-to-have-fun. Some of those people really could not care less about the results of their actions. They want money to buy luxury, they want to be entertained and served, and they don’t care about the consequences. Some of them just want to have a pleasant life and don’t mean to intentionally cause harm, and so refuse to acknowledge that their actions have consequences. But whatever their intentions, other people lose out, because other people are the means to their ends.

The banality of evil. The insidiousness of that sort of mindset.

We live in a world with so much suffering partially because of idol-worship. Also because of the way we define evil actions to ourselves. First, we save the word evil for really really bad things, like murder. But even here, we leave ourselves a little wiggle room. Not all murders are created equal. Then, we distance ourselves from things. Evil is an aberration, it is a monstrosity. It is something that is Not Us. Evil was the slaveholders, evil was the conquistadors, evil was cannibalism and human sacrifice, evil was the Holocaust, evil is utterly other from who we are.

Not true. Evil is the act of self-interest magnified. It is the act of creating and defining an “other”, and using and manipulating it for one’s personal gain, or destroying the other as an act of loyalty to the idol which gives the self meaning. Evil is banal. It’s not the horror movies we watch, or the sociopaths who turn into serial killers. Monsters aren’t real, and sociopaths suffer from mental illnesses. But there are people who think they are good, who have outsourced their evil, who rely on impersonal evil acts which cause great suffering to sustain their lifestyle, but refuse to accept responsibility. To refuse to know, to choose ignorance, is an act I would consider evil, bad, wrong, whatever you choose to call it; just don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. If you disagree, think about those who knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing. Also, please realize I seek not to condemn this sort of wrong because I have some wish to show that we’re all hopeless assholes, but to give it the proper name so we can stop pretending it doesn’t exist, and start trying to address it.

Sometimes evil happens in a flash, sometimes we can point with ease to those who wield the weapons.  We can all recoil in horror at mass murders (well, most of us can). Sometimes we can look at the horrors of history and they’re quite obvious. Other times they’re not, because the evil is so subtle and pervasive, is so much a part of our society that it’s hard to identify where the root lies. I think the difference between obvious, specific evil and the more common sort is the reason why World War II is of far more historical interest for most people than World War I. World War II is this clear-cut battle between good and evil for us. There was evil, here was good, it was a battle against an absolute monstrosity. We could condemn with ease. But life is rarely so simple, and these black-and-white classifications actually do harm in the long run.

How many times have I heard that the nazis were utter monsters, devoid of any semblance of decency, the scum of humanity. Absolutely: yes. But to end the discussion there is to avoid how it happened, and so it has happened again. Most nazis didn’t consider themselves to be monsters. They had wives and children they loved, books and music they cherished. Murderous thugs, true, but some of them really thought of themselves as being upstanding citizens. Then there were millions of people weren’t nazis at all, but they didn’t speak up against what was happening. In the end they grew accustomed to silence. Others died fighting them, or risked everything to protect a stranger’s life. There are people in this world, I like to believe, incapable of doing harm to others. The vast majority of us, though, have the capacity for good and bad. To deny many of us in that situation would have been complicit, or worse, perpetrators, is to live in ignorance of ourselves, and so to rationalize whatever we do. If we refuse to believe we can do truly bad things, then we’ll justify everything because we can’t shatter our self-perception. To refuse to examine ourselves is to make small atrocities okay, to not call them by their name.  Goodness is not a label we give ourselves or a thing we are born with or a religion which makes us infallible, but a choice we constantly make.

In World War I, millions and millions of people were killed… for nothing, we think. Pointless waste. But there were reasons; they just happened to be awful ones. The greed of the wealthy, the armaments build-up, the race for colonies in Africa, nationalism, imperialism, all idols in which people were not as important as the money, power, and lifestyle desired by some. These things all still exist in our world today, but we ignore or rename them. Perhaps there won’t be ever be another war like the Great War; it’s difficult to imagine we’d stand for it. But our economic crisis could become far more devastating, our oil will one day be gone, our environment may become unable to support billions of people. We persist in thinking that what happened in the past can’t happen again, instead of learning from the past to prevent a different, but equally devastating, sort of catastrophe. Murder scenes aren’t identical, but some of the details are. Death and destruction.

The evils of war are, or at least should be, easy to condemn. The things which create war endure. They are the evils of nearly every society, and unchecked they can cause immense suffering. Sometimes they lead to more wars, more land grabs. Other times they create a society in which a large portion of the population exists only to serve the wealthy. Where a democracy is built upon slave labor. Where the wealth of one continent is based upon the pillaging of another. Where some children are born into a life of ease, and other children are born in order to mine coal, to make sneakers, to work as sex slaves. Where genocides happen overseas, but we go on eating our dinner. Where our government does things we would condemn in theory, but which we implicitly bestow our consent upon.

Someone else is evil, but we never are. Slavery was evil. It is thought, though, that there are more slaves on the planet today than at any other point in history. We don’t see them. We also don’t count the other sort of slavery, the type that doesn’t bear the name but is a form of nearly inescapable servitude. We still don’t make our own clothes or grow our own food or build our own furniture or make the plastic junk which fills our lives. Someone else does, and they get paid shit for it. They can’t escape. But we do not want to know. Because we don’t see them, we deny responsibility. I would argue this is the most common sort of evil in the world, an evil more pervasive than the bureaucrat “just doing their job.” It’s the evil of not wanting to know the results of our actions, of choosing to deny evidence when presented to us, of being too lazy to change. An evil which would like things to be different, but accepts the way things are as long as it is left alone. An evil which accepts there is some suffering which is not a fact of life, which is preventable… but does not want to be inconvenienced.

The evil which rationalizes other evils in order to not be disturbed, to maintain the status quo, to have its lifestyle protected and enhanced: that is the basic human sin. The ancient sin of selfishness, of Me First. It starts with small things and can’t stop. It’s an absence of goodness, a nothingness, a corrosion. In its search for personal, perpetual ripeness, its soul is devoured.

That is the problem we face. We have met the enemy, and it is us. That boring old Golden Rule, requiring so much from us. How naive. Much better to just eat, drink, and be merry.

Despite the enormity of the problems we face, of the Herculean task of changing ourselves, we must not become pessimists, or lose our humanity by wasting time on blame and punishment. To live with hate or anger at other people would be to miss the point entirely. Rather, let’s rage at the way things are, and then get busy fixing what we are given time to fix, loving more so we need less. What was that old saying, kinda helpful? Oh, I remember:

A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.

If we decided to live by that, with all its implications…


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