This post is a follow-up to the one below on Hannah Arendt and the notion of the banality of evil. I fear, from one or two of the comments, that the reservations I expressed about her arguments may have led to misunderstanding. My point was certainly not to suggest that one shouldn’t try to understand and explain why and how these horrors happen, how people can come to commit, or be indirectly involved in, them. This is why I said, for example:
We have to understand what they [the perpetrators] did precisely as a fact about the evil human beings can do. Not only were they not devils or monsters psychologically speaking; for the most part they were not even abnormally sadistic or inherently brutal, or killers ‘by nature’, and so forth.
The literature on the Holocaust which attempts to further our understanding is huge and wide-ranging: historiographical and experiential literature; and then sociology, social psychology, philosophy and more. Much of this literature is valuable: from Arendt herself to Bauman; Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo; Raul Hilberg, Saul Friedlander, many, many others.
All I was wanting to do was to signal some dangers, and to point to the fact that Arendt may not have altogether avoided them. If Eichmann was really marked, as she said, by a ‘quite authentic inability to think’ – and I take this to include thinking morally – then wouldn’t it lessen the extent to which we can hold him responsible for what he did?
It is well known – and we have recent examples – of how easily understanding in one sense tips over into understanding in another and much less healthy sense: the sense of excusing or condoning. In this domain some things can get to slide by which shouldn’t be allowed to. Example: In the appropriate circumstances, anyone will become a killer (torturer, etc). Not true – although many will, and we need to understand the pressures and the temptations, the better to fight against them should we ever find ourselves in such circumstances. Example: In such-and-such conditions I, too, might have done that. It should not be said! Yes, understand that, as human and fallible, we all might have or might. Understand what sorts of thing might lead us there. But if what we’re talking about is the wilful destruction of innocent human beings, we have all to say: No, I would not. Or (at least) I hope I would not. To say that we would is to make it more likely, should the relevant circumstances arise, that we will, rather than fighting against it.