Mind Matters — Are You Thinking?

Years ago—1963—Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, wrote about Adolf Eichman, the Nazi who murdered millions of Jews. Her book was titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt observed that Eichmann did not start out as an “anti-Semitic monster” but was a “normal person who had what was for his time a normal upbringing and education,” says Elizabeth Minnich in The Evil of Banality. Minnich was a student of Arendt’s and she has reversed the emphasis from evil to banality itself.

I have just begun reading The Evil of Banality and make no pretense to give it its full due here, so I plan to continue the topic in the next column.

However, just starting the book has gotten me reflecting on my own little evils of banality that I have committed over time and wondering if I would have the courage to be the resister of injustice and evil if I were confronted with the dilemma of choice between following authority even though it was inflicting cruelty and violence or standing up to such power, no matter the consequences, what would I do! Eichmann wasn’t the only individual in history who “just followed orders.”

Not questioning, not thinking, just going along, happened in the apartheid in South Africa, it happened in Rwanda, it’s happening here when ICE officials cruelly hunt down immigrants even while they apply for green cards. We blame systems and argue that “it’s systemic” but Minnich asserts it still remains the individual’s choice. Some people do resist and stand up to injustice. Furthermore, she says, “People who are not thinking are capable of anything…when systems are turned bad, when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, it does not take a Hitler, an Idi Amin, a Jeffrey Dahmer, a Charles Manson, or any other unusual sort to become a perpetrator. It just takes a practical conventionality, a clichéd conscience, emotional conformity, susceptibility to small scale bribing by salary, loot, status…it just takes…an ability to go along thoughtlessly…without…reflecting, questioning.”

Now that I have moved to Massachusetts after living in Chadds Ford for thirty years, I can tell my own story of going along without questioning. Nothing brave about standing up for principle after the fact and so far away, but here goes. Years ago, Chadds Ford was a Republican stronghold. During that time, we tried to get a variance for an addition to our home. Ten years of trying! Finally, one day, someone in the know in the township took me to lunch and said, “You want an addition, right? Well, all you have to do is change your voter registration from Democrat to Republican, pay your fees, and you’re good to go. Oh, and we’ll even give you a seat on the Mental Health Advisory Board of Delaware County.” I went along and did as I was told and stayed a registered Republican for many years—just to be safe. Also during this time, the Civic Association of Chadds Ford (yes, ironically, “civic”) was holding its election of officers. It was announced that only individuals who came to the meeting could vote. Democrats (I too) wanted a voice in this organization, so showed up in force at the meeting in order to vote. Well, the Republicans stuffed the ballot box with votes cast by all their cronies who were not present. They won, of course.

Did I call them out on it and voice my disgust at this underhandedness? No, I put up and shut up. Although my silence was not the same as mindlessly going along with and carrying out cruel and violent orders, I feel that it still plays out on the continuum of not standing up for what is right and is a collusion that may be the slippery slope that descends into the evil of banality. Just go along, don’t make waves, don’t question, don’t think… .