Progress and Hannah Arendt

Tuesday, 8 September 2020 00:35 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Hannah Arendt 


As COVID has hit a global “reset” for virtually everyone, it’s a moment for Sri Lanka to decide, just after elections, what it wants the next decade to be about in the story of its national evolution.

And for whatever reason, reflection takes me back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was a Revolution to an extent “betrayed” by the central intelligence arm of an evident world power, which fomented loud assertions of support as long as the insurgents were content to keep dying for the greater good (the Kurds in 1991 in Iraq remember similar incendiary banalities).

The remarkable commentator Hannah Arendt romanticised  this revolution, which proved itself to be darker and murkier than she projected in the 50s, and was to find its fulfillment perhaps 30 years later in 1989 in a peaceful, bloodless “velvet” revolution, where Budapest supported East German revolt by letting them transit Hungarian soil without hindrance. It was another bit of leverage in toppling the Berlin Wall at that time. And so the “lost treasure of revolution” that Arendt perhaps prematurely celebrated in the 50s was ultimately vindicated.

She describes this “lost treasure” as the ability to more or less “spontaneously” without too much central planning “recover” freedom, describing it as a spirit of “unforced liberty.” She detects it in the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris (though clearly more fleetingly) and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest (more controversially).

She says, it appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions…” She likens it to a “will of the wisp.” For this most practical of thinkers, this ethereal concept is a tonic. She soured on the Hungarian 1956 revolution as whiffs of retrograde nationalism emerged, and as the grandeur of the enterprise became polluted with heavy handed anti-Semitism as well.

But what we might take from this is that while the “lost treasure of freedom” may be more elusive, and can be delayed or stymied, it is continues to await our discernment, and our commitment.

And if we can avoid the “evil” Arendt describes below and be “guilty” here in Sri Lanka of the “extensive” good of building up human capital, reforming our financial markets, upholding the independence of the judiciary, making our government both  more competent and far less expensive, if we uphold the values of universal education and the legal and social rights of women as a bulwark of that, if we can create a level playing field for intelligent enterprise and sane incentives for investment, if we can both commit to cultivating and being open to welcoming talent from wherever that can help build a modern society, and if we can continue to transition towards “services” and “high value addition,” we can not only locate but meaningfully leverage that human cultural treasure she alludes to so enticingly. 

Our biggest foe is what she goes on to describe as the banality of evil, anti-life, pro regress and anti-progress, and a perpetuation of yesterday’s follies in facing tomorrow’s opportunities.

The nature of evil’s banality

 The writer, philosopher, commentator, alluded to above, Hannah Arendt let loose a philosophical firestorm when upon attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann  (the Engineer of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” regarding the Jews over World War II), she found him not a hoofed monster, not a diabolical spark of hatred and malice, but dismally “ordinary” and downright  “banal.” 

That evil is “ordinary” and “everyday” seemed to some to undermine the unprecedented scale and horror of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. That was never the intent of Ms. Arendt’s insight. She was warning that the seeds of such monstrosity hide in plain sight, they are incubating often under our noses. Their “banality” is part of their danger, how readily we overlook something that seems everyday and unremarkable.

Professor Elizabeth Minnich, who was a teaching assistant of Arendt’s has suggested that perhaps if we change the syntax and speak of ‘The Evil of Banality’ we can remove, or at least reduce the misunderstanding.

In other words, rather than seeming to potentially trivialise ghastly wrongdoing and wide-scale suffering, this would emphasise how hardcore superficiality erodes our capacity for judgment and chloroforms us against the evil we potentially do. 

If everyone who is “evil” is corroded by monstrous hatreds, inflamed by evidently destructive prejudices, consumed by furies equivalent to the horror they carry out, then they are advertising their pathology, and we can more readily “guard” against it. 

But what happens when they have a deceptively pleasing sheen, “spout Scripture”, and are consumed more by clichés, conventions, time-worn and faddish default settings and reflexes? What if great evil can flow from enormously petty and unromantically pedestrian people, “extreme” really in their ability to be thoughtless, insulated by clichés and well-rehearsed nationalistic “edifying” phrases, treating life though as a commodity rather than a sacrament?

This then leads to the question of how those wishing to enroll them, might motivate and “inspire” these gravely banal, ordinary, compliant, thoughtless people to seek to deliver for the monsters at the top of the totem pole, and to even take “pride” in being congratulated for this? So, most often, the clear monsters, the evidently horrific people, the lead gargoyles, need legions of ordinary others to carry out their perversions, genocides and monstrosities. A few warped souls can’t deliver genocide, or mass slavery, or sustained exploitation.

“Extensive” vs “intensive” evil

 We can also concede that the split above applies to “goodness” as well. Starting with evil though, those evils that shatter all norms, that destabilise our sense of what could be construed as “acceptable,” that send shockwaves across social fissures, and emanate from one or a few perpetrators, and are a short-term outburst of malevolence or a spasm of hatred, we call “intensive” evil. Those that take time, require mass participation, and sustained actions to stockpile their horrors and to perhaps even institutionalise them, we call “extensive.”

Taking the other side of the ledger, private acts of saintliness, spiritual heroism, being luminous and remarkable from a deep well of piety and humility and authenticity, but in a striking and dramatic way, we call “intensive” good. And virtue that has to be stoked and sustained, to recruit and engage others, to be woven into the fabric of habits and organisational mores, we refer to as “extensive”.

So the murders of a cult, Jonestown, the poisoning of a town’s water supply with toxic waste by one company, a sick psyche who kidnaps, commits murder and cannibalism, these all are stomach-turning (literally!) examples of “intensive” evil.

Extensive evils refer to perversions of whole systems. So, allegations of vaccines being fraudulently touted for pandemics that are rushed out (irrespective of the health harms tangibly experienced directly or as side effects) by legally immunised pharmaceutical companies with the implicit validation of the WHO (which receives large funding from some of those very companies) for example as is alleged by some, if proven or demonstrated, would be a textbook example of extensive evil. 

While intensive evil happens in a moment of anger or outrage at times,  fits of rage or hatred, extensive evils require “disassociating” actions we can rationalise taking from outcomes that we argue we either didn’t “really” cause or were somehow worth it on some cost/benefit basis. We can think of mass exploitation, slavery, child pornography, drug cartels, often based on lattice works of cooperation, often deploying “ordinary” and “reliable” people doing daily jobs, not frenzied unhinged zealots.

And the importance of the distinction is that we fruitlessly flail trying to apply “intensive” evil logic to “extensive” evil and it just doesn’t work.  So, addressing a pyromaniac who negligently and blindly sets off forest fires, is quite different from confronting a group who does so “strategically” to attract insurance or government funds for example. 

Or an instance where “pollution” is just a variable, but considered subservient to profits, irrespective of damage to individuals or the social fabric. Careerism, deeply embedded greed, status seeking, immunity to considering larger consequences (say, stoking racial violence to get a demographic to vote in a certain way), are all examples of this.

Again, looking on the other side, so much energy goes into celebrating virtue and idolising heroes who at times merit all the adulation, and we build monuments to the moments where people buck pressure and take a stand. And yet scant energy goes into studying or celebrating what it takes to invest in the infrastructure, the resources, the strategies, to mobilise advancing causes of virtuous distinction and value over time.  One thinks of a Mother Teresa creating an Order to address the impoverished in Calcutta, or a Martin Luther King recasting historic injustice and outrage into a vocabulary of human hope that could be picked up and championed politically by a Robert Kennedy or legislatively by Lyndon Baines Johnson (strange bedfellows indeed), or a Chess club that allows underprivileged African American youth in Harlem to find outlets for their talent and their passion, to express more productively some of the energies swirling inside them, by competing globally against the world’s best.

Banality and human communities

 Societies are in danger of perishing in part when their beliefs are dysfunctional, perhaps even destructive, and they are unexamined, and masses of people are hypnotised by the deadening canopy dogmas. 

The danger is really subjugating any sense of considered conscience or judgment to some “larger” authority who is imbued with sanctity because it is draped in national colors or tribal affectations. 

So, common petty vices, not asking questions, looking the other way, all help to make revolting things “ordinary,” they are rendered banal. So, having a generation of poorly educated children with little resilience and poor life habits, lulled by technological babysitters and coddled by overwrought parents, are given a sociological “tag” (Gen Z).  But we are failing in our leadership and mentorship of them if this is the case and giving it a brand name doesn’t help.

And once immunised from paying attention, or being unable to challenge, or to even discern nuances among misleading statements, no objection is then raised to increasingly darker and more noxious initiatives. Genocides and even ecocides are not usually done until frightened, mulish, compliant people are now overlaid by an authoritarian or a totalitarian leader or system, who avails of their naiveté to go along, blinkers riveted, marching to some ghastly anthem.

One of the saddest narratives of the COVID era is the power being wrested by central authority and the precedent it sets for extra-legal demands on constricting autonomy, even when factually, we are dealing with something demonstrably tame in terms of lethality compared to other terrors we have navigated, viral and otherwise over the centuries, without any such compromise of personal liberty or rights.

And the education needed to extricate ourselves from such autocratic ideological quicksand has to be education in synthesis, in thinking “around” and “about” what you are doing, not just “within” its dictated templates and strictures and invented reflexes. 

We are afraid of our feelings and so suppress them. We are made highly uncomfortable by our thoughts, and so we silence them. It was William James who reminded us that most people think they are thinking when they are really only rearranging their prejudices.

And the harbingers of this type of civilisational doom-loop are empty slogans that come rolling off the tongue, common epithets mindlessly deployed, prejudices worn smooth by overuse, group-think within organisations that mutates into outright taboos, technical language that becomes a barrier and barricade to any real inquiry, holy “icons” like profit that must never be challenged or expanded, tribal teddy bears that must be clung to and never exposed to the light of true diversity.

My mentor and spiritual guide for millions, M. Scott Peck (derided by some for thinking a little too freely and fluently and with unnerving authenticity and vulnerability), reminds us, “The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.” 

That which is “true” has no reason to fear our little questions. That which is hanging on desperately for power or preferment, is immediately and reflexively threatened by having any light flashed on its dark corners. 

Militant vehemence always betrays an inner disquiet. And Socrates, the gadfly of ancient Athens joins the chorus, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

And perhaps as banality limits what we might do, we find “The unlived life is not worth examining” except to locate the off-ramps.

Back to Hannah

 Hannah we are reminded was a fan of Cato’s: “Never is he less alone than when he is by himself; never is he more active than when he does nothing.” This related to thinkers. 

And while the international culture inspired by the US relates to practical action over “theorising” or “detached elites” we must beware. 

The unthinking person can be led to do virtually anything: “led” or “seduced” or “numbed” or “dumbed” …

And you may run into a polished, suave, bon vivant, or a starched functionary with imbecility etched on his brow. And either could house a true monster, small outpourings of readily rationalised wickedness, that metastasise into unspeakable acts, often in the name of “duty”. 

And you may run into someone unremarkable and self-doubting even, or equally someone aglow with an inner light radiant with composure, and either could host a saint. 

Apart from evident monsters and savants, “evil” and “good” are nurtured and nourished over time, and appearances can be devilishly deceiving or gloriously inadequate.

It is time we looked farther and deeper, felt more acutely, and thought more reflectively as well as courageously, so we can resist that which retards life, and come fully alive to richer possibilities.

Beyond banality

 So, let Sri Lanka declare a “non-banal” future or vision…for example, becoming a first world nation in 10 years, objectively, emphatically, undeniably. 

Let that be akin to President Kennedy declaring the US had to get a man safely on the moon (and back) in a decade when it seemed Soviet science had taken an astonishing lead. 

Let us then usher in that “lost treasure” Hannah Arendt was cheering and let us beware all the banal manifestations of evil, anti-life, corrosive, insular, all the sociological, legal, philosophical and emotional conspirators of progress-undermining entropy.

And then having stated our Vision, let us take a real stand for it.

Let us demand from ourselves collectively and individually the “extensive good” of living into that visionary future, behaving our way into its challenging but benevolent embrace.

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