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Psychology is not my usual bailiwick, but this article “questioning the banality of evil” caught my interest. A long-accepted view in the field is that ordinary people are willing to commit heinous acts under authoritative instructions or when they find themselves in certain kinds of roles. Does that view somehow imply that such a perpetrator is less accountable because they were “just following orders”, or because they were overwhelmed by the pressure imposed by their role?

The authors of the article, S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, cite recent research challenging the standard view. They argue that even when individuals are tasked with doing evil, they are often fully engaged and even creative in the execution of their assignments. They discuss the case of the Nazi tyranny and especially Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. His trial on war crimes, however, originally reinforced the “banality of evil” narrative:

… Eichmann worked hard to undermine the charge that he was a dangerous fanatic by presenting himself as an inoffensive pen-pusher. … [but] Eichmann [was] a man who identified strongly with anti-semitism and Nazi ideology; a man who did not simply follow orders but who pioneered creative new policies; a man who was well aware of what he was doing and was proud of his murderous ‘achievements’.

This reminds me of a great film called “Conspiracy“, in which Stanley Tucci is brilliant in the role of Eichmann. The film depicts a meeting of the top echelon of the Nazi bureaucracy, based on actual meeting notes, at which the “Jewish question” is addressed. Anyone who has ever attended a fairly large corporate meeting will experience an eerie familiarity with the banality of the proceedings, at least until a certain point. These are bureaucrats. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that the participants are discussing something horrific, despite the opaque jargon and their hesitation to give voice to the plain meaning of the agenda. First, a consensus has to be established. But like so many corporate meetings, the consensus and the outcome are preordained. There are objections, and some of the participants voice them more strongly than others. They are ultimately either cajoled or bullied into submission. But those objectors do not blindly accept the evil they are being asked to do. On the other hand, the monsters putting forward the killing agenda, including Eichmann, know exactly what they are doing and believe in it.

Haslam and Reicher insist that “ingenuity” is more descriptive of evil actions performed by individuals under tyranny than “banality”; that’s a takeaway from “Conspiracy” as well. However, Haslam and Reicher present these competing characterizations of evil-doing as if they are mutually exclusive hypotheses. In fact, it’s likely that these two “kinds” of evil coexist and are almost certainly complementary in their effects. Is there any reason to rule out the possibility that some individuals are simply “good” soldiers who faithfully follow orders? Who, like the timid Mr. Twimble in “How To Succeed…”, always play it “the company way”?  They might not be the most intelligent members of society, but there are certainly those who will do as they are told, and there are others who might need motivation to act. In fact, the authors admit as much in their discussion of leadership as a catalyst for action by others:

… people are surrounded by would-be leaders who tell them what to make of the world around them. For this reason, the study of leadership must be a central component of any analysis of tyranny and outgroup hostility. Indeed, tyrannical leaders only thrive by convincing us that we are in crisis, that we face threat and that we need their strong decisive action to surmount it.

This is where the distinctions get muddy. I’m no psychologist, but to my way of thinking, further action and support for tyrannical evil by the members of a motivated in-group may be quite banal. Even a conscious decision to follow abhorrent orders in one’s own self-interest may qualify as an act of banality.

A group may well be convinced by their leaders that their actions are right, and that is frightening. Some will act consciously and viciously. Some will attempt to resist. Under great pressure, not all are capable of marshaling sufficient moral or intellectual resistance to the call to participate in evil acts, but none of that that offers justification. Banal or otherwise, participation in heinous acts against an out-group cannot be forgiven by mankind.