The Banality of Meanness

Mean. Uncivil. Abusive. Controlling. All of these words could easily describe Barry Freundel, Mark Driscoll, and the other men I’ve discussed on this blog. In my countless interviews with victims of mean, an even more sinister descriptor emerges: these guys aren’t just jerks; they’re evil. Looking at our last two case studies of Driscoll and Freundel, we find it’s not so hard to make the leap. These are men who invoked the divine for their own selfish ends and caused a great deal of pain and suffering in the process. But where exactly is that line between bad and evil?

We often characterize evil as an aberration of human nature because it’s so difficult to rationalize. This difficulty of getting our brains around evil behaviors often leads us to create narratives around those responsible. Perhaps, we suspect, the evil is in response to unbearable circumstances a person may have experienced earlier in life. Or maybe the person is a psychopath, is innately evil. To this way of thinking, the evildoer is damaged or crazy or both.

But there’s an alternate school of thought that tells us that evil might not be such an aberration after all.

In her groundbreaking 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt tried to reconcile the actions of Adolf Eichmann—a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust—with Eichmann the person. In her reporting on his trial, she makes a highly controversial argument that remains polarizing to this day: neither Eichmann nor his fellow Nazis were motivated to commit their acts out of hatred and malevolence. Rather, they were the result of lack of thought, imagination, and memory. Eichmann, she adamantly believed, was incapable of empathizing with his victims’ suffering because he lacked the judgment needed to perceive it. He was not smart enough to think for himself and therefore was “just doing his job” as he claimed in court.

Arendt enraged many people with her views on Eichmann as being “ordinary.” She resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of him in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a psychopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggested, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people. All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

Still, one wonders what could possibly have been going through Eichmann’s mind to allow him to commit such atrocities. How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most hated and perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him in the events of the Holocaust, from concentration camp guards to civilians who turned a blind eye? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal, and therefore more distressing, as we ask ourselves, What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Two years after the trial, Arendt reflected:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt had a supporter in Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief US translator at the Nuremberg trials. He too believed that Eichmann and his peers seemed without intellect or insight, distinguished only by being susceptible to flattery and ambition. “Dictators have no peers,” he said at the time. “Only sycophants to do their bidding.”

Arendt felt very keenly that what really connects us to one another is the commitment to try to see the world from others’ points of view—not to subscribe to their points of view or to merge with their points of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. She was all about dialogue. In Eichmann’s case it was precisely the incapacity and lack of interest in that perspective that she found to be at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil. It was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

While Arendt and others argue that evil is banal, empathy is not. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary, or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it. You take it for granted that what you see and feel is obvious. It is not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy, some experts suggest, may even be relatively rare.

Could it be that knowing how to skillfully practice empathy is the key to minimizing and managing mean?