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The Banality of Evil

By John Haly 

When we contemplate great evil, who comes to mind? Genghis Khan, Vlad the Impaler, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Idi Amin, Kim Il Sung, Josef Mengele, Saddam Hussein, Emperor Nero and so on? Too easy. The reasons are apparent, the history unrefuted and the weight of affirming opinions near universal.

We all like to think of evil as insidious, intentional, cruel, focused and malodorous even. Isn’t “evil” patently recognisable by its social maladjustment? That is the comfortable illusion of how “good folk” describe evil to distinguish ourselves from it. So it may be surprising to hear that according to psychologists nobody thinks of themselves as evil. We self-justify actions and beliefs. Folks may hold their irrationality within their mindset, as they persist with the delusion of being the good guys.

Hitler, for example, grew up in a time where he experienced the open expression of anti-Semitism. He didn’t create anti-semitism, it was his honest belief, that the Jews were responsible for the economic hard times of other Germans in the post-war years. Seems almost banal, doesn’t it?

Chase Replogle writes “Arendt coined the phrase, the ‘banality of evil.’ You can define banal as, ‘so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.’ What Arendt observed was that evil feeds not just on extremism, but just as frequently on our banality. Sin works its way deepest into the most boring and apathetic lives.”

We often don’t recognise evil amidst banality as it is human nature to separate “evil” from our apathy, ignorance, “benign neglect”, “thoughtless bureaucracy”, or our an innate desire to please our perceived “superiors”. Aren’t we all just inclined to follow orders? Resistance is hard, besides “who has the time to protest”? Perhaps you vote for the good guys (however or whomever you decide are the “good guys“), and in that single choice, you make once every three years, some may consider their duty complete. “That’s a democracy“, you cry. As though to comfort ourselves we say, “I’ve done the right thing; I’m not evil or fascist!

The evils of indecision

Last century’s Version of Fascism

But then who is fascist? Is it what it was or what it will be? How often do we accuse the comparative justification of calling the alt-right “fascist” as being too radical? “Nobody is exterminating minorities in gas chambers” one may say defensively. But recall that Hitler took seven years to bring Germany to war. When was it a step too far?

  1. When he was promoted to Chancellor on a minority vote in a democracy?
  2. When he consolidated the Nazi Party’s control of Germany and secretly rebuilt its army from 1933 to 1935?
  3. When he only talked for years about the possibility of expelling Jews and removing their civil rights?
  4. When he was objectifying women as subservient for reproductive purposes with no place in key influence roles?
  5. When he disengaged from the Treaty of Versailles in 1936 and war-tested his military in the Spanish Civil War?
  6. When he shifted non-german foreigners and Jews into gulags or race specific ghettos?

A thousand banal little steps were undertaken in the decade after the Nazi Party grew from 12 seats in the Reichstag to 107 seats in 1930. By the 1940s his troops were frog-marching across Europe and throwing people into gas chambers. When would you have stopped him or protested or objected in that decade? Neither current parties of the Australian nor American government have been in power as long as Hitler before the war (Jan 1933 to Sep 1939).

When I raised a draft version of the above paragraphs in social media, I was warned, “I think comparison with the holocaust needs to used carefully. The Germans did not just “go along” with the Nazi’s they fought against them until a police state was imposed upon them – while most of the political class stood by till it was too late.” This statement, although, was not entirely valid, as the elite of German society did embrace Hitler enthusiastically. While it is true that some “good” people resisted fascism, as they do today, many others, including Jews didn’t realise the consequences. Irrespective of resistance or because of obliviousness the Nazis still marched across Europe, so perhaps it is a moot point. Contemporaneously the problem is, as always, identifying how fascism has evolved. This awareness is painful for many, as they only want to recognise it in the form it took 80 years ago.

This Century’s version?

Despite refutations of such positions, Perhaps because that was before your lifetime and people are so more “woke” now, it is all very different. So let’s explore into what it may have evolved. Have your responses evolved?

  1. Did you react when Donald Trump seized power via the electoral college on the votes of a minority?
  2. Did you respond when Trump began to refocus on the military?
  3. How about when he spoke of expelling Mexicans and Muslims?
  4. Did his objectifying of women whom he grabbed by the pussy upset you?
  5. Did launching air strikes in Syria or breaking established treaties caused you concern? Paris climate accord, Iran Deal, TPP, or NAFTA?
  6. Did locking children in Gulags and separating many permanently from their parents, upset you?
Australian wannabe

OK, so perhaps America has dysfunctional parallels, but we in Australia are markedly different some may claim.

Our politicians are more subtle and more sophisticatedly communicators than Trump. Still, what were your responses in these circumstances?

  1. When 41.8% of all voters voted for the coalition in 2016, did you defend and justify the preferences system for its selection of what the majority wanted?
  2. When Abbott started spending billions on faulty American aircraft, late running Submarines and involved us in America’s pointless Syrian war, did our propensity for violence concern you?
  3. When the social dialogue about banning Muslims entered the political fear mongering, did you speak in defence of the vast majority of adherents to a peaceful religious code?
  4. When misogyny became a familiar and recognisable feature of legislation and leadership, did you say this went too far and defended women?
  5. When Indigenous treaties were scrapped, and political impetus arose that sought to have us withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement were we at all surprised?  Did Morrison’s undermining of Refugee Convention obligations, all while adding to our refugee push-factor in bombing raids in Syria, cause alarm?
  6.  When we against any decent moral code not only locked innocent adults and children in gulags for the “crime” of being foreign and desperate and then began actively resisting efforts to provide medical assistance to children, did any sparrows die?
Policies for the people?

On such subjects, the coalition argues that we need secure border protection for an Island like Australia with minimal 150 km of sea between us at the tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea to fight off refugees. Even though the majority of refugees fly in and by-pass our secretive “on water matters” border protection. There are many absurdly opposing arguments, such as desperately trying to entwine refugee policy with the war on terror. Money, alternatively, is unavailable for the likes of education, health, social and legal justice, wage equality, mediocre wage growth and affordable housing, utilities food or justice. This absurdity of fearmongering about refugee crime suggests we need be strong and prepared for an invasion of terrorism in our population but simultaneously drives policy to make our community uneducated, poor, unhealthy, un-housed, oppressed and socially divided.

So just because we can see the correlation between what we thought was the progress towards evil and contemporary examples of the same, does it mean we should rethink real “evil”? I mean we all accept that these things happen in society. Unfortunate, perhaps but “evil”. Let’s try to compromise surely. “We are doing this for your security and to save you from the threat of terrorism,” says our politicians. “You will hardly notice it”, they say. Moreover, that last part is right. Like the gradually heated frog in the pot you don’t mainly notice it, and by the time the pot boils, it is way too late.

Equality in Australia: How we treat anyone without wealth.

What we don’t discuss over dinner

“Isn’t that politics”? “I’m not political”. “I disengage from that stuff”. What was it Martin Luthor King said? “All that needs to happen for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing.” Do we by our silence, allow all of that to happen? Perhaps we are too busy to notice the correlations, too compromised by our selfish preoccupations, perhaps we don’t care. However, surely that isn’t bad. Surely that isn’t “evil”.

Amidst the same social media post commentary I previously referenced one gentleman wrote “most people aren’t evil just caught up in their own lives… “and in this contemporary society this is, unfortunately, both accurate and a misconception.

The unheeded dark side

Distractive Accuracy

“Accurate” because of our history of

Productivity and wages unlinked

Being “caught up in our own lives” is true because of more extended hours with reduced skill sets for less pay and bigger bills. These are the results of deliberate bi-partisan political policy choices. We should never forget that policies designed to redistribute wealth upwards, increase inequality, engage in a civil war on society using the tools of racism and attacks on a range of marginalised groups, have a deliberate purpose.

It’s not like there isn’t plenty of issues to raise, provided we can raise ourselves

Misperceived evils

A “misperception” because as an act of self-protection of ego, we protest that we are not evil, just a little compromised, more compliant, obedient or scared of being socially ostracised, perhaps?” As I said before, evil is integral to life’s banality; it is everyday ordinary barely conscious choices we make. It exists in the tiny, tired, “I don’t have the time“, “it’s not that bad“, “there are worse situations” excuses we tell ourselves to support the choices we make. Evil is not in the individual decision but the cumulative. It takes thousands of bad collective small choices made over years, that lead to the exclamation of “how the f#ck did we get here?” as we watch border patrol march down our streets, while our “authorities” detain and abuse our children and bash our disabled neighbours.

Worry not, you’re safe!

But fret not, if you never raised a voice in protest, then they are unlikely to arrest or hamper you because you played it safe with your daily banality. You remained silenced by indecision and compromise; you respected authority and the status quo; you defended the need for thoughtless bureaucracy and realised it was too much work to improve your knowledge of history and politics. Besides, our administration is acutely aware from their study of your metadata, your phone messages, your Facebook posts, and even your TV set-top box that you’re still compliant, malleable, cooperative, collaborators but never, really, truly, magnanimously, unambiguously … “evil”?

This article was originally published on Australia Awaken – Ignite your torches.

14 comments

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  1. Phil

    You are correct. It is a slope involving many, many, small steps and the climb to the top (to the ultimate evil) is thus approached only by small, singular, seemingly innocuous steps. It is only on arrival at the pinnacle that evil personified becomes apparent and by then there is no retreat.

    It is not so much that Morrison or Dutton et al are in themselves evil – they probably don’t themselves even realise their capacity to become truly evil – but as long as the commentariat and the placid consumer of their opinions absorbs their bile, the path to evil is inexorably trodden.

  2. king1394

    Whether speaking of the situation in 1930s Germany or Australia now, we need to recognise that these ‘leaders’ come to power on the back of an angry and resentful populace that is eager to find scapegoats for their dissatisafaction, In Germany after Versailles the belief developed that the German army was never defeated in the field but undermined by a fifth column of wealthy Jews, Communists and others. It became socially acceptable and desirable to illustrate your patriotism by your anti-semitism and thus it was easy for Government to bring in tighter restrictions.The categories treated as sub-human extended to homosexuals, Gypsies and people with disabilities at the same time as an elite group was being elevated. As Phil says above, many small steps that slowly and surely destroy one section of the community while the other watch without concern.

    Here in Australia these same steps have beentaken. Certain segments of the population such as people of Muslim faith, who might be, or have been refugees have gradually and inexorably come under attack and lost status as citizens. John Howard’s Tampa adventure showed just how much evil can be done without the public at large caring one iota. The narrative of the terror which might be visited on peaceful Australians should even one child be brought to Australia for medical treatment is both ludicrous and widely accepted. In permitting ‘free’ speech that verges on hate speech, we have not dealt with the type of racism that is the equivalent of yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.

    The unemployed are another group which has been stripped of rights to make choices about where they live and work and the type of payment they will accept for work. If you have been unemployed for any length of time, it seems that employers can have your labour for minimal pay and limited conditions because, should the newly placed worker complain, he/she may find themselves breaching their Mutual Obligations. The Indue Card (cashless welfare card) has been imposed on people around the nation with very little concern from the rest of us. This is nothing but a slight variation on a ration card. But that’s OK – The unemployed are lazy bludgers, and drunks and druggos after all, just another lot of sub-humans.

  3. Stephengb

    Bloody frightening!

  4. Matters Not

    Some great points made. Hopefully all readers will reflect – use a critical consciousness and all that – but as many thinkers have pointed out we are immersed deep into a cultural morass that both shapes and limits how we think and what we believe. That the fish is last to discover water illustrates the problem. I am reminded:

    “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

    Unexamined, ‘common sense’ assumptions pollute our daily lives. They mask an ‘objective’ reality and in so doing prevent us from recognising and then recreating our world. Any examination of ‘common sense’ invariably reveals that first it’s not that common and second it’s not that sensible.

    One such example is the oft repeated ‘crap’ – politicians are spending taxpayer money. Because it resonates so powerfully with the dumbos, politicians now chant that same nonsense. And the sleepers are not awakened. Perhaps the objective reality is too painful to recognise? Or perhaps recognition is beyond their cognitive powers? Who knows for certain – but we can be sure because this crap ‘works’ for so many it will go unchallenged, at least for the immediate future.

  5. Harry

    People have the erroneous understanding that taxation and bond sales provide money for the government which they use to spend. So if the government increases its deficit (spending more than taxing) then it must be increasing its debt holdings or “printing money”, both of which are deemed undesirable.

    ALL government spending involves money creation.
    The government does not even need to issue debt (bonds). They are best thought of as term deposits and are really a form of corporate welfare.

  6. Paul Davis

    “Six weeks since being brought to Australia for treatment, Nauru refugee yet to see doctor” ….. headline in horror story in The Guardian web news page. Story describes how refugees brought to Australia for emergency medical treatment are handcuffed and brutalised.

    While some of us are ashamed claiming the gangsters running the place along with the actions of Serco and their other hired goons don’t represent them, we still have to confess that this actually IS our country. We collectively allow this brutality to occur and too many of us “civilised humane” people will vote for either Morrison’s Liberal National coalition or Shorten’s Centre Right Party to continue this obscenity.

  7. helvityni

    Yes Paul, read and weep.

  8. John Haly

    Thank you, contributors, all.
    Phil; it is the gradual desensitisation to incremental tiny lessor “evils” that we absorb into our system like swallowing that bitter coffee with a spoon full of sugar. We note not the collective harm of either the sugar or the coffee as we mix it in such a way to be palatable.
    King; the populist movements voted for Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and others. Some speak of Populists voting for whom they do in order to throw a grenade into the system. Well, that is indeed the case. In the meantime, these same grenade followers disparage the disenfranchised with equal venom (as you mentioned).
    Matters Not: it is interesting that I used a not too dissimilar analogy in my last article here in AIMN where I said: “Like fish swimming in the water, human social exchange swims in a sea of opinions.” but our inability to recognise opinions from facts demonstrates how “unexamined” we are.
    Harry: your insight looks remarkably like a Modern Monetary description of sovereign economics, which if you do not know I will encourage you to read more. If you do, then I also know where you are coming from and agree.
    Paul: The plight of the refugee, is a national shame it will take years to purge ourselves of, except that we have not even yet begun to feel any conscience for what we have done.
    helvityni & Stephengb; Tis both Frightening and cause to weep for this generation that has brought these things upon us.

    It is upon us who have a conscience to act, protest, and fight for a better future for our children and enlist all and sundry to that cause.

  9. Harry

    Hi John,

    I am very familiar with MMT (but always willing to learn more) and believe this country needs to use its MMT capabilities.

    A current relevant bit of economic data is the unemployment and under- employment rate- 5.1% and 8.9% respectively. That figure represents 1,815,000 people who are forced to somehow exist on inadequate income. That’s not only an indictment of the “system” as it is now but a massive waste of human potential. The voters need to know that the level of unemployment is a political choice and that the government is far from helpless to return unemployment to the irreducible minimum of about 2%. Under current policies/ideology that will NEVER be reached as the unemployed are used as pawns to discourage wage and conditions demands. Press too hard and you too can join the ranks of the unemployed!

    I think an incoming “less neoliberal”? government such as Labor should to adopt the Job Guarantee as advocated by Bill Mitchell, Increase Newstart and review those rejected for DSP, increase Age and other pensions early in its term. For starters!

    It also needs to understand its MMT capabilities and be able to explain the basic mechanics of federal spending capability, the role of taxes, why budget “deficits” are neither good or bad as an end in itself and stop issuing debt (bonds) to “cover deficit spending” to neutralise the debt and deficit lambasting which it could not withstand last time Labor was in office.

    Labor definitely needs to engage the services of the likes of Bill Mitchell.

  10. John Haly

    Harry; Appreciate the enthusiasm for your subject and am glad you are on board with MMT. Although, as the old cowboy might say “this ain’t my first rodeo” and unemployment issues I have been writing articles about published here and in IA for a few years now. I am familiar with ABS figures so can I encourage you to explore how much worse it actually is.
    Either of https://theaimn.com/lets-keep-australia-working/ or
    http://theaimn.com/myth-jobs-growth/ will do the job. There are two or three older ones in IA, Part one of an early one was:
    https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/jobs-growth-and-unemployment-the-coalitions-perspective-part-1,8916 you will find part 2 easily if you look.

    As for the incoming neo-lib-lite Labor party, they have been approached about MMT and Job Guarantees many times, and they do not want to buy into it even if that is how the economy and job market should be working. Job Guarantees used to be a philosophy Australia once paid heed to, but no longer. As for paying unemployed more, that isn’t going to happen either. Perhaps that is just cynical of me and good lord, I so want you to be right and my assessment wrong. I hope I won’t die before you can tell me “I told you so!”

  11. H.P.

    CUI BONO!?

  12. Harry

    Thanks for the links John; have the articles open for reading.

  13. Jamesss

    In my opinion, to be a survivor in state and federal politics, you need to be a nasty piece of work, without compassion, rude, vile, nasty, greedy, corrupt, treasonous, and above all a black heat.

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