Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Animals and the banality of evil

I had been teaching Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in my Moral Philosophy class, and this is my first time teaching this book. On the second day of teaching it, I wondered how class discussion was going to happen, because I kinda felt that Arendt's points were both obvious and unobjectionable. Instead the class was split between those who were deeply critical of the idea of the banality of evil, and those, like myself, who found it obviously true. This class made me wonder if my work around how we treat animals makes me more likely to buy Arendt's argument (it also makes me want to teach J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals the next time I teach this book). So while I am sure I am not even close to being the first person to have this insight (I really should google this), but what follows is a summary of Arendt's work on the banality of evil, and its intersection with our treatment of other animals.


While the subtitle of Eichmann in Jerusalem is the banality of evil, the phrase actually appears only twice in the book. The first time as the last words of the last formal chapter of the book, and the second time it occurs within postscript of the book. But despite the paucity of the phrase, much of the book is structured around explaining the concept. The banality of evil is not about some sort of minor or unimportant evil. It is not about, as this SMBC comic puts it, the semi-hitlers of history, like the person who leaves his dishes out until his roommate has to do them. Rather the banality of evil describes a societal inversion.
And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody "Thou shalt not kill," even though man's natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler's land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: "Thou shalt kill," although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it - the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation. (150)
So evil which had once been rare, exceptional, and anomalous has become normalized, common, and banal. For Arendt this does not reduce the horror of the evil, rather it intensifies the horror of the evil.

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly an terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied [...] that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (276)
When I was discussing this with my brother, we talked about how this is one of the reasons that animal activism and scholarship comes again and again to the Holocaust, the genocides of settler colonialism, and chattel slavery. It is not to engage in the analogy of victimhood, which not only insults everyone involved, but as I have argued elsewhere, they also do not provide particularly useful models for even understanding our treatment of animals. Rather, we return again and again to these issues in order to trace something like the essential questions of the banality of evil. How is it that we live and love among people who find nothing wrong in something we find to be a world historical crime? How do we deal with the fact that we ourselves have been complicit with this crime for so long? How do we face the fact that we probably cannot fully disentangle ourselves from this crime? How do we provoke a sense of responsibility in a world, that as Adorno put it, "[e]ven the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter" (Prisms 34)?


We also come back to the banality of evil because of our feelings as a vegan killjoy (see also Richard Twine's article). Vegans and vegetarians are constantly being judged for our very existence, even if we are not advocating anything at the time. And if we do engage in advocacy? We are told again and again that we cannot engage in judgement. Which brings us back to Arendt. "As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solutuion" (116). Arendt further explains how Eichmann, who was not particularly important in the party, was asked to the meeting to plan the Final Solution to serve as a secretary for the meeting. This meeting was important for Eichmann.
Although he had been doing his best right along to help with the Final Solution, he had still harbored some doubts about "such a bloody solution through violence," and these doubts had now been dispelled. "Here now, during this conference, the most prominent people had spoken, the Popes of the Third Reich." Now he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears that not only Hitler, not only Heydrich or the "sphinx" Müller, not just the S.S. or the Party, but the elite of the good old Civil Service were vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters. "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." (114)
At this point Arendt comments, "Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty" (114, emphasis in original). To try to be moral in the banality of evil requires one not be ruined by their own modesty, and to have their own thoughts in the matter.