Hanna Arendt used the term ‘banality of evil’ in relation to her witnessing of the trial of Adolf Echimann for crimes against humanity in Israel in 1961. Eichmann was believed to have been one of the masterminds of the Holocaust.
In January 2017 Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, originally published in 1951, hit the top 20 current bestselling books (with George Orwell’s ‘1984‘ in first position), and was placed just below the US Constitution… which has also gained a significant readership lately. And we all know why this would be.
Arendt coined the term ‘banality of evil’ from her observation of Eichmann during his trial, and her realisation that, far from being evil, with a unique kind of intelligence, in fact he was in her view quite stupid and unthinking. For Arendt the term ‘banality of evil’ represented the phenomenon of those who don’t think but unthinkingly just follow orders:
“Arendt came to disagree with the view that Eichmann was a cruel monster. She was actually horrified to discover that he had simply been a man who was following orders, justifying his behaviour by invoking Immanuel Kant’s definition of duty to explain his actions, as a law-abiding citizen in a country where the moral and the law resided in the person and orders of Führer Adolf Hitler.” (International Business Times)
For her, the banality of so-called ‘evil’ was something connected to shallow thinking, not particularly born out of any deep philosophical thinking or rationale that we could term ‘evil, but purely the following of what one is told to do or be… a kind of non-thinking about life and oneself within that life. The banality is in fact the un-examined life; in IoPT terms a lack of autonomy and healthy self-reflection, but instead an identification with the thoughts and deeds of others. (see postscript)
For Arendt, the definition of totalitarian state, as opposed to a democracy or an authoritarian state, or a dictatorship, is that a totalitarian state is founded on a movement, a domination of the masses by propaganda, ‘fake news’, programming and manipulation that plays on people’s apathy, fear and sense of helplessness. The proclaimed policies of such a movement are not the point, because policies, once achieved, create a vacuum, but movements move and can be controlled and manipulated for non-visible and unpublished means over time. For more on totalitarianism click here.
Thinking about this made me think of the notion of the ‘banality of perpetration’. Through our understanding of trauma as explicated in Ruppert’s Identity-oriented Psychotrauma therapy, we know that perpetration, apart from having a traumatising impact on the perpetrator him or herself, is primarily an action of the trauma survival self. So, in the psychological splitting that takes place when a person suffers a traumatic experience, the person is left with an active ‘trauma survival’ self that develops many strategies of deflection and avoidance of the unresolved trauma experience. Many of these activities become acts of perpetration towards others, and towards oneself (think of the concept of the ‘internal bully’, that is a self-perpetration in order not to make connection with unresolved trauma feelings.) The stronger perpetrate against the weaker in order not to feel their own pain, but instead force the other to feel the pain.
So our understanding of trauma says that any form of causing harm to another, perpetration, is in effect a means to avoiding one’s own trauma.
This fact has enormous implications for us personally, socially and politically: What in effect does this mean, and where does it leave the concept of ‘evil’? Well, from my own experience as a practitioner of this work, and personally, the survival self within us is reactive and unthinking, having only one mission in life, and that is the avoidance of unresolved pain and suffering from past traumas. There is no other purpose for the trauma survival self than this, and as such there is no possibility of depth of thinking when one is functioning from there; it is a survival strategy and never an action of the healthy part of ourself. It is only when we are in our healthy self that we can reflect on ourselves and our life in any depth.
Arendt apparently said that ‘evil’ has no depth, whereas ‘good’ has tremendous depth.
‘Evil’ has no depth. What she means is that it has no intellectual, discriminatory, emotional and philosophical depth. Whereas ‘good’ requires choice from thought, philosophical morality and emotional engagement that comes from deep consideration of the issues involved. ‘Good’ requires a personal understanding of right and wrong and the will to act accordingly. ‘Good’ requires will and autonomy; ‘good’, therefore, can only come from the ‘healthy self’.
Hence the use of the word ‘banality’. In this way we could say that in fact there is no such thing as ‘evil’ in itself, there are only actions that we might call ‘evil’, and these are always the actions of perpetration, which is to do with trauma survival. This is a shift in thinking that is tectonic. No more can we dismiss ‘evil-doers’ as just plain evil… we are from now on required to understand the underlying trauma dynamics… For example see my blogpost on the topic of Willie Bosket and The Psychopath.
Many people misunderstood Arendt’s use of the word ‘banality’ as meaning ‘common’ or ‘normal’, ie of the many, but that wasn’t how she was using the word… what she was meaning was the lack of depth, the lack of autonomy and self-examined thinking, literally something banal and without interest or character.
Autonomy is an important part of our thinking in IoPT, because the traumatised person has lost permanent access to their autonomy. When we are functioning from our healthy part there will be a degree of autonomy, but its fragility is a hostage to the moment of re-triggered trauma, which can happen many times in a day, and then we are in our survival self, with no discriminatory of self-reflective ability. The momentary, unconscious ‘take-over’ by the trauma survival self is a loss of autonomy. For most of us our lack of autonomy goes right back to a Trauma of Identity, which in my experience of working with clients, happens most commonly before birth, in the very making of the relationship between the mother and her baby. Is the child supported and allowed to be an individual in his own right in this first relationship? Is he allowed to have his own identity, or does he have to give up on his autonomy and his unique identity in order to reconcile himself with his mother’s wants and needs? This having to give up on the ‘healthy autonomy’ to align with his mother’s wants because of his absolute dependency on her is a trauma of identity.
So it is only from an autonomous place that we can examine ourselves and our life, and make choices that are truly ours, and not helplessly influenced by others’ manipulations and propaganda.
In Franz Ruppert’s book, Trauma, Fear and Love, he writes in the first few chapters a comprehensive view of what, exactly, the psyche is… from the material aspect of the psyche (the flesh and blood of the entire brain system), the energetic aspect (the energy involved in psychological activity), and the information aspect (genetic information, the gathered and accumulated experience and information processing that takes place throughout our lives).
He also talks about consciousness as being something that requires effort.
Consciousness is within all species to the level that they need in order to survive. All species are conscious, but for most species that consciousness is limited to the basic survival needs: safety, territory defence, finding food, and procreation for the perpetuation of the species. Beyond that for most species more complex consciousness is not necessary.
Some species however do develop greater consciousness; for example we now know that elephants experience memory of others and grief at the loss of herd members.
And here is a video of a cat deciding to rescue a puppy… this is supra-consciousness to the cat’s basic survival needs.
Consciousness increases and develops in relation to environmental and evolutionary challenge, and humans have the most developed and complex form of consciousness as far as we currently know. Our consciousness has grown considerably over millennia; it particularly shifts dramatically when we are faced with massive changes in our environment, by innovation or other human development that requires our consciousness to grow. For example, the Industrial Revolution required a massive shift in consciousness as we had to deal with a reconsidering of who we were, the need to move from rural community life to the industrial city in order to take care of basic needs, food, income etc. The technological age that I have lived through has seen me move by force of reality from a consciousness that got excited at the thought of having a telephone in my bedroom (as opposed to only in the hall) back in the 1960s, to a consciousness that now carries my mobile phone with me everywhere, and hardly ever takes a trip from my home by car without consulting the GPS.
“Consciousness requires time and effort, which is why scientists currently researching the brain maintain that consciousness is the exception rather than the norm in the field of psychological behaviour (Roth, 2001; Singer, 2002).” Ruppert, Trauma, Fear & Love, 2014.
Other than the forced consciousness shift from external developments as described above, self-consciousness requires effort… and time… and, as Ruppert goes on to state, will. Because consciousness development in most instances is a choice that requires will. I say ‘in most instances’ because people commonly only engage with self-exploration such as psychotherapy under pressure from an unsatisfactory life, and with a specific agenda: relief of emotional suffering, and many people don’t take this step… they simply put up with their suffering, retreating further into reactive survival impulses.
The development of consciousness, the examining of oneself and one’s life is not something that everyone does, and in relation to Arendt’s perception of Eichmann, he was a man who had suffered a trauma of identity from which the survival strategy is identification with the needs and wants of others, in Eichmann’s case with Hitler; he had not taken the step of becoming conscious, and according to Arendt, had remained an un-examined self.
One of the reasons that those in power resort to imprisonment, or other control, even death, of a country’s intelligentsia is that those are people who engage in self and life examination, resulting in their healthy ability to criticise and work for change, and as such they are a danger to those who would control people. The success of democracy, I think, depends on an environment that encourages and supports increased consciousness, and tyranny and dictatorship depend on people not examining themselves or developing their consciousness.
We could say that successful democracy then depends on exploration of one’s trauma and a strengthening of one’s healthy and autonomous ability, whereas dictatorship and authoritarian regimes, particularly totalitarianism, must act to keep people in their survival mode, to keep people from such self-examination and growth in consciousness.
Education about trauma is key, and then the will to take the step to address it, otherwise one remains reactive and a hostage.
A postscript note about Arendt.
At the time Arendt’s notion that Eichmann was not a monster as such, but an ordinary man who thought no more than to rigidly stick to the rules and orders that he was given, caused outrage, and accusations to Arendt that she was a Nazi sympathiser and an enemy of the Jewish people. Generally people understood what she was saying as exonerating Eichmann from blame. But this wasn’t the case. She was very clear that Eichmann had committed crimes against humanity, but her analysis of Eichmann was that far from being a calculating and intentional monstrous criminal, his crime was not thinking, of not having intention, but just following orders; of in effect being a non-person, a nobody. This is the horrifying banality of such perpetration; the perpetration of a person with no identity.
Ruppert, F. (2014). Trauma, Fear & Love. Published by Green Balloon Publishing, UK.
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