In both my community organizing and teaching careers, I’ve often cited the work of Hannah Arendt and “the banality of evil” as an example of why we need to promote reflection.
Here’s what I described the connection in my first book on teaching ELLs — English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work:
Organizers often cite the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt when they talk about the importance of reflection. Arendt wrote a book after she observed the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust. She shared that she had expected to see a monster. Instead, she was shocked to see a man who was mechanical, bureaucratic, and thoughtless. She began thinking that evil was more the result of the absence of thinking and reflection, which she described in a famous phrase as the “banality of evil.”
Though Eichmann is obviously an extreme case, this point is important for those of us who are not perpetrating evil, too. If we don’t think and reflect, we can be mechanical and live our lives by a formula. We can fail to calculate the consequences of what we do, and we can make the same mistakes over and over again that can lead to personal and, sometimes, social destructiveness. We can learn the facts, but miss the opportunity to develop an understanding.
A movie has come out about Hanneh Arendt, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Here’s a New York Times article about it, and two video clips (I think only the first one will come through on an RSS Reader):
Today I watched Secrets of the Dead: Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers. It explores this idea of the common man being guilty, and in the end of the episode, presents an interesting quandary: keep the espionage means a secret or bring more high ranking officials to justice.
It would be interesting to think what Hannah Arendt would have written differently had she read the transcripts covered in that PBS special.