Can one do evil without being evil? Philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with this important question in her famous essay Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland bureaucrat who, in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’ but ‘terrifyingly normal’. Her thesis was that evil isn’t necessarily big and dark and obvious. It’s often the “banality of evil” – the normalization of the monstrous — that dies the lion’s share of damage.I think about this a lot. Especially nowadays.
It wasn’t that long ago that members of my mother’s family in Poland were exterminated in concentration camps. Raised in a Jewish household, I learned about the Holocaust at an early age. I heard about Hitler, I heard about Nazis. But what I could never figure out is how people let this happened. Everyone in the world wasn’t a Nazi. Hell, everyone in Germany wasn’t a Nazi. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to kill millions of children. Hitler didn’t kill 6 million Jews. It was people who rounded them up, the people who transported them, the people who worked in the camps, the people all across Europe who stayed silent while this massive evil took hold. It was the Americans who turned away the boats filled with Jews looking for refuge, sending them back where they were killed. The responsibility for killing millions is shared among millions.
“Have I, have you, been too silent? Is there an easy crime of silence?” ― Carl Sandburg
What scared me as a child, and what scares me now, is all the people who stood by. Big Scary Evil-Doers and Unabashed Liars (your Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, Donalds, Scott Pruitts, Sarah Sanderses) are powerless without the support and enablers of those who say nothing. Silence is indeed complicity. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” – Thomas Jefferson
I recently wrote a piece about how frustrated I am that millions of Americans haven’t spoken up about the deceptions dismantling our democracy before our eyes. People shrugged off environmental atrocities, blatant corruption, human suffering, and blatant lies – or answer any horrified description of what’s going on with the immoral laziness of whataboutism. Self-professed Christians pick and choose what sins will spark their outrage, denying some and manufacturing some when need be. (Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, but I’m pretty sure he said something about the least of these and loving our neighbors.) My husband read it and said it made him sad. I asked why and he said it’s sad that we have to speak up, fight, resist and instigate conflict. I disagreed; there’s nothing sad about fighting for what’s right. He asked, “Well, what about World War II. That was pretty sad.”
Yes, war is sad. Fighting is sad. Hellz yeah, peace is better. But peace at what price? We wouldn’t have had to even fight a World War II if people had spoken up about the evils of nationalism and Nazis. If the German people and the people of the world would have nipped the whole Nazi thing in the bud in 1933 there wouldn’t have been the unimaginable horrors that were the Holocaust and WWII! That is the point. It behooves good people to speak up. My boy Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, and us: “Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored.”
If Stoics aren’t your philosophers of choice, take Ockham’s Razor. Keep it simple: when confronted by wrong, do what’s right. Around 1998, Miep Gies added a small note to be appended to the end of a forthcoming biography of Anne Frank. (Miep Gies took an enormous risk hiding Frank’s family from Nazis from1942 until 1944 when they were pulled from an attic in the Netherlands.) In her note, Gies makes THE essential point that good people must not stand by as bad people do bad things. Gies writes that while it was her “great and abiding sorrow” that she was not able to save Anne Frank’s life, she takes real solace in knowing that she was able to prolong Anne’s life by two years and, in the process, lead to saving the journal, which would reach and help so many millions of people. For Miep:
“It confirms my conviction wrote, “that any attempt at action is better than inaction. An attempt can go wrong, but inaction inevitably results in failure.”
Getting back to philosophers, Plato said, “Your silence is consent.” It was true thousands of years ago and it’s even more vital now. Hannah Arendt may not have been thinking of those who do nothing when she wrote about the “banality of evil” – but I do.
Listen, nothing is not an option. Those who don’t fight wrongdoing are ultimately accomplices. So, do what’s right. Don’t be afraid: Stand up. Speak out. Be heard, be helpful. You’ll feel the better for it — and the world will be the better for it.
P.S. There were lots of people in the 1930s who urged people be nice to Nazis. Don’t rock the boat. Here’s a 1934 speech urging Jews to be civil to Nazis.