Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Banality of Evil

"Evil" is such a big word. It has shades of gray, depending on who is doing the defining. Even things most of us automatically think of as "evil," like the Holocaust, are not universally agreed upon.

Recently I was listening to a discussion where the term, "Banality of Evil," was used. Again, "evil" is such a big word. It's hard for me to think of it as banal, but I understand the sentiment behind the phrase.

"Banality of evil" was first used by Hannah Arendt in a 1963 work. The idea is that the great evils in history are not perpetrated by sociopaths, but by ordinary people who believe their actions to be normal within the context of their time and place.

Later, Edward S. Herman referred to it as "normalizing the unthinkable." His premise was that doing awful things systematically made them feel normal. So, everyday people would commit murder, rape, torture and other horrible acts because it's the way things were - it was their "normal."

Since I heard the phrase the other day I've been thinking about what in our own "normal" might fall into this category. I'm sorry to say I've thought of more than a few things. We humans are not particularly noble creatures, it seems. We want to be. We try to be. But we just don't seem to have it built into us. Inactions can be just as damning as actions. Our "normal" includes awful things we just take for granted. It's just the way it is - our normal.

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1 comment:

Judith Robl said...

The trick is to make this banal "normal" so abnormal and abhorrent that we as a society will not tolerate even the slightest hint of evil.

But then there is that trick of defining "evil." We need a moral absolute against which to define evil.