Friday, 24 January 2014

The Banality of Good


Mark Featherstone

Following a recent discussion about the relationship between violence and education with a colleague in Canada, I was struck by the potential application of Hannah Arendt’s idea, the banality of evil, to contemporary society. Arendt was a German-American political theorist who wrote famous books, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and later, Eichmann in Jerusalem, on Nazism and the Holocaust. In the latter book she details her response to the trial of the Nazi administrator Adolf Eichmann, who effectively oversaw the horrors of the Holocaust. For Arendt, Eichmann confounded expectations. One would imagine that the bureaucrat behind the Holocaust would have to be a monster, a sadist, a being of pure evil, but in Arendt’s eyes, there was nothing particularly unusual about Eichmann. He was a committed family man, who was simply doing his job. Thus we approach the meaning of the term, the banality of evil. Evil does not have to be exceptional – it can take place in the mundane, in meetings, perfectly civilized conversations, and the signing of pieces of paper. Of course, there is nothing in the psychoanalytic theory of sadism that requires the sadist to be a blood thirsty monster. For Freud, and later writers on this condition, sadism is in a way always banal. In psychoanalysis the sadist is a deeply damaged person who seeks to compensate for their own destroyed self through violence against others who are reduced to the status of objects. For Klaus Theweleit, who wrote perhaps the classic work on Nazi psychology, this is exactly how the Nazi mind-set evolved. As a result of shifts taking place across Europe at the time, and the pain and humiliation caused by the loss of World War I, Germany evolved a generation of wounded men who tended towards sadistic over-compensation. In other words, they made up for their own weaknesses by attacking others who they reduced to the status of objects to be destroyed. Most importantly, there is not necessarily any blood lust in any of this – since the sadist transforms other people into objects, there is no need to tear them apart in a violent rage, but rather punish them, and destroy them methodically.

In light of this theory, my response to debates about the exceptional nature of the Holocaust has always been to say that although the scale of the murder which took place in the camps was exceptional, the horror which was inflicted upon particular individuals was not. Stalin similarly developed a network of camps across the Soviet Union. In recent days, camps have been discovered in Syria. The concentration camp itself was a British invention of the Boer War in the late 19th-early 20th century. Although it is true to say that no other regime has ever designed camps specifically to wipe out entire populations of people in the way that the Nazis did, the point remains that sadistic violence occurs on a daily basis across the world. How many children are brutally abused and killed across the world every day? In acknowledging this, one does not demean the violence of the Holocaust, but similarly in acknowledging the horror of camps, one must not demean the violence which is inflicted upon a solitary individual who suffers in silence in some lost part of the world. In many respects I think that this is what Arendt saw in Eichmann – violence, destruction, and sadism is normal, never exceptional, and takes place everywhere. Eichmann was the embodiment of this – the evil man who was simply that, a man, who could not even dignify his acts by being the some superhuman evil demon. Again, this is not to deny the extremism of the Holocaust, or the extremism of violence which is inflicted upon any individual, but rather to say that this extremism is largely normal in a world where people brutalise each other on a daily basis in the name of power, control, and money. In my own work over the last couple of years I have sought to explore this everyday sadism through reference to Henry Giroux’s notion of the culture of cruelty. The purpose of my use of this theory was to show that the violence and horror of episodes such as the Holocaust has been repeated across history in places such as Bosnia and today Syria and can be traced back to a particular psychopathology which we can also find played out in everyday situations. In other words, the kind of violence we find in macro, world historical cases, is similarly operative in micro cases, where individuals destroy each other in the name of power. Thus the next move in my work was to seek out instances of this violence in banal situations so that it was possible to reverse Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil in a new formulation where evil is in the banal which forms a kind of ambience or background violence that sustains more extreme forms of violence and destruction. Here, my point is that because we are largely insensitive to the evil of the banal, it is easy for us to take the next step and find ourselves exposed to extreme violence, where adjustment may or may not be an option depending on prevailing cultural attitudes. This is, of course, exactly what happened in Nazi Germany, where debate concerns exactly how much the average German knew about the camps. Why would they not rebel? Why would they not resist? The answer to this is that they occupied a position where extremism had become normal. Under these conditions it would have been extreme to stand up and resist evil by being good.

Extending this thesis, the purpose of my current work on education and violence is to seek to apply this theory to schooling and particularly an exploration of the violence that is often found in schools. After setting up a psycho-social theory of power, sadism, and bullying in childhood, I shift my attention to an exploration of extreme cases, Columbine and Sandy Hook, and suggest that we should locate these events in a cultural context, American capitalism, where violence, has become banal, ordinary, normal. In reading Lionel Shriver’s book, We Need to Talk about Kevin, against the works of the child psychoanalysts Melanie Klein and D. W. Winnicott, I argue that extreme violence in school is a result of an expansion of the ambient violence, what we might call ambient evil, of wider society itself, which prevents the delivery of the kind of care and attention that children need in order to grow into adults who can care and have empathy for others. Under these conditions, I argue that it is worth thinking about another reversal of Arendt’s idea – the banality of good. Here, very basic acts of goodness become extreme forms of rebellion against a cultural norm organised around opposition, competition, violence, and evil. Thus, goodness becomes a form extremism, even in its smallest, most banal, expressions. It is through this idea that I try to develop an ethics of everyday resistance to normal violence – that is through the idea of the banal act of goodness that contains a kind of exceptional, or extremist, resistance to the norm which is to try to dominate other people. While the philosopher Immanuel Kant set up the idea of categorical imperative, where I should do good for the sake of doing good and not seek out any external rewards for being good, I think that it is necessary to supplement or gloss this by saying that what this means is that is we should try to be good, understand other people, and act in ways which defend their humanity, even when our cultural context would suggest that we should do the opposite and fall back into the normality of sadism where the other is somebody to over-power, objectify, and destroy, either metaphorically or literally.  

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