A philosophical dispatch from borders of a conflict

The banality of evil, a phrase introduced by Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 2011) in her controversial reporting on Eichmann’s trial, remains puzzling and yet significant for our modern understanding of evil. Especially when it expands to describe systemic abuse. In the following paper, I will attempt to expand the banality of evil from a factual statement about one perpetrator (Arendt, 1984) to a concept useful for the diagnosis of evil. To do this, I will revisit Arendt’s claims, clash them with a recent critique from Avishai Margalit and consider a wider framework of Arendt’s work, as read by Susan Neiman. Hopefully, after laying the philosophical groundwork, I will be able to apply this concept to the recent humanitarian crisis looming on the European Union border with Belarus.

Before we examine the banality of evil, we should settle on some definition – I am willing to take Arendt’s: any action that makes a human being superfluous is evil (Arendt, 1993). However, this definition characterised evil of a certain magnitude, and I believe that its application will lead to more clarity in this essay.

Arendt revisited her original claim on the banality of evil in her lecture on Thinking and Moral Consideration (1984). She redefined it as a factual statement about the shallowness of an evildoer who committed a crime of a gigantic scale. She saw no wickedness in Eichmann, only thoughtlessness. Not undermining the sufferings of the victims of Shoah, she merely diagnoses the perpetrator to be ordinary. Susan Neiman (Neiman, 2004) places that claim in a wider context of Arendt’s work. Naming evil of such scale ‘banal’ she points out that it can be conceivable and ordinary. For Neiman, the significance of the phrase is that it urges us to be vigilant because atrocity can be committed by someone who does not seem to be criminally minded. This interpretation of Arendt’s work, both on Eichmann and totalitarianism, already expands a mere factual statement to a grim assumption. Anyone can become morally lazy, and commit terrible crimes, for banal reasons. Against such a generalisation is Avishai Margalit (2019). He claims that there was nothing banal about Eichmann. On the contrary, he sees him and other Nazi criminals as satanic. For him, the banality of evil lies somewhere else. In the wide public. The inability to ask moral questions made many people focused on minding their own business and made the systemic genocide barely visible. Therefore, the crime of holocaust was possible because of the moral laziness of the banal compliers. Combining the views presented by Neiman and Margalit, we can expand the factual statement about one criminal to be a diagnosis of systemic evil, made possible by evildoers, who pursue their banal goals sometimes in a satanic way and those who silently follow. I do not intend to prove that these instigators are always banal, but only that they very often seem to be, as in the following instance.

At the end of August, the borders of Poland and Lithuania became a background for a humanitarian crisis. Some journalists (Heneley, 2021) point out that this situation is staged by Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. As we have learned by now, it was a part of the preparations for the invasion of Ukraine. Unnoticeable for geopolitics, there are real people who struggle to stay alive. As the war broke off, the crisis continued, with limited media attention. Every day, manipulated by Lukashenko, people attempt to cross the border. In this paper, I aim to analyse the banality of decision-makers as well as the public. Therefore, I will focus on the lack of action and help from the government of Poland and leave the interpretation of Belarusian action to the reader. The Polish democratic government took away these people’s humanity and makes their fate of no interest to the authorities (Pulchny, 2021). They become superfluous. Therefore, the indifference we observe is evil by Arendt’s definition.

This systemic wrongdoing allows us to distinguish three different banalities. Each to an extent in line with the expanded framework I derived from Neiman’s and Margalit’s interpretations. Firstly, we shall consider banal populist politicians, who always love to use such a crisis to gain approval and praise. To do this, however, they use rhetoric, which deepens the dehumanisation of asylum seekers (Koschalka, 2021). Therefore, for the banal reason of staying in power and pursuing political goals, they cynically commit evil without taking into consideration the possible catastrophic outcomes of their words. Their rhetoric creates unrest and an overwhelming sense of danger, further dividing society. Secondly, we look at most regular people who are not willing to take a stand against injustice. They either believe in the rhetoric that pictures refugees as possible terrorists or they simply ignore the atrocities that take place on the border (Tilles, 2021). They are banal compilers. Finally, there is one party whose role should be noted. In previous years the media continued to seek more emotional reporting (Busching et al. 2016) the images of war and disasters seen on television inflated our sense of evil. Therefore, we became more used to it, and it was reduced to the background noise of our lives. These banal circumstances led to the tragedy of 30 people in Usnarz and many more anonymous victims in the forests of Polesie.

The concept of the banality of evil should be widened from a specific psychological case to a diagnosis of systemic abuses. They are possible only because there are enough banal compilers (Margalit, 2019). The case of the current refugee crisis is symptomatic. It shows how banal motives, moral laziness and overwhelming violence in the media content lead to our indifference or even, in extreme cases, hostility towards other human beings. Their fate is caused by the banal evils of our modern society, maybe not comparable to Eichmann’s, but still discomforting. Arendt’s significance today is her call for action – active moral consideration, the key to stopping evil from happening. The application of the banality framework demonstrates as well that this evil might have been avoided.

Written by Jan Balcerowski

Jan is an EPP student (currently at the University and Vienna). His outside-academia interests are financial market memes and A song of ice and fire fan theories. He normally steers away from ethics and moral philosophy towards action theory and causal inference. When he feels less pretentious, he works as an analyst for a think tank.


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