Hannah Arendt Part II – “The Banality of Evil” – The UK Referendum on Europe

 Now the dust has settled a little on the referendum result that many observers did not foresee. Of course we still have to clear up the dust to see the extent of the damage, if any, the UK voters have caused both in their own country and in Europe. I really hope both sides win because I still deeply love the UK despite living in continental Europe since 1984.
I suggest that both the UK voters and the German footballer mentioned in my first post have acted in exactly the same way, without thinking of the consequences of their actions, as discussed by Hannah Arendt.
 
 
For those who may not know, Arendt was a Jewish German-born American political theorist, and philosopher, although she didn’t like that label. Arendt reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former SS civil servant, taken captive in Argentina by agents of the Israeli government and brought to trial in Jerusalem. She wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker magazine and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil was published in 1963, a book based on the trial.
 
Don´t get me wrong though, I am NOT comparing the evil of a former SS civil servant to the unfortunate incident during a football match or to the outcome of a referendum. All I am saying is that Arendt´s reasoning on the roots of evil could, in our case, be applied to the poor judgement of certain UK voters and a German goalkeeper, i.e. an absence of thought. That’s all I’m suggesting.
 
Let me quote Hannah Arendt (quotes are not memorized)
 
Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.”
                                                      Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
 
In other words, when evil is done, or in our case bad judgement, thought has no chance of saving the day. And something you do without thinking becomes banal or routine. That is what Arendt means when she talks about banality of evil. Evil cannot explain itself and one cannot explain evil. It is just senseless.
 
 
These provocative thoughts caused Arendt quite a few problems, not least because the logical conclusion to her argument was that the SS civil servant who was on trial was so stupid as not to realize the consequences of what he was doing, could not be called a “monster”.
 
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 and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
                                                       Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
 
But what about our UK voters who voted for Brexit? Are they stupid? No of course not. But as I understand it, the NO vote did significantly correlate with education levels. It is possible, then, that voters who did not have the “intellectual capacity” to think carefully about the consequences of their action, voted to leave the EU. This vote was based on a “gut” anti-EU feeling fuelled by an anti-EU press, and lies from politicians, including a promise that £350m per week would flow into the health service.
 
It is not the aim of this blog to discuss the nature of the referendum campaign. What is done is done. Suffice to say that I was ashamed to see how mediocre British politics has become.
 
 
 
 
 

 

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