Banality of evil
Banality of evil is a phrase used by Hannah Arendt in the title of her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.
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Reicher and Haslam have challenged Arendt's idea of the banality of evil. They acknowledge that ordinary people can commit evil actions, but assert that it is not simply a matter of “blind people following orders.” They point to historical and psychological evidence that suggests ordinary people become evil when they identify with evil ideology.
They cite Cesarani's Eichmann: His Life and Crimes, as “suggesting that Arendt’s analysis was, at best, naive.” In his work, Cesarani claims Arendt attended only the beginning of Eichmann’s trial and missed the defendant’s more revealing admissions. The author recalls that Eichmann spoke proudly of the creative measures with which he executed Hitler’s policy. To Cesarani, this was indicative of an active involvement in evil, not just a passive following of orders.
Reicher and Haslam have also reinterpreted the findings of a number of landmark psychological cases, including Milgram's obedience studies and Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment to conclude that people follow ideology, not just orders. They have proposed a number of factors that may be used to explain how people become swayed by evil ideology, including:
- individual differences (not everyone will choose to commit evil)
- crisis or group failures (people are most vulnerable in a crisis or when a social group they belong to falls apart)
- leadership (people require a strong leader to encourage them to commit evil).
Reicher and Haslam believe these are just some of the factors involved and that more research is needed. In part, they blame the popularity of Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil for handcuffing research for so long.
This criticism seems to stem from a misunderstanding of Arendt's thought. Arendt shows a thorough understanding of the role of ideology in evil in general and Eichmann in particular. Take, for example, the following passage from her Origins of Totalitarianism:
Once ideologies’ claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted. The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simpleminded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.—Hannah Arendt, 
Eichmann was blindly following orders; but ideology was what made him blind.
See also 
- Bird, David (December 6, 1975). "Hannah Arendt, Political Scientist, Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-03-12. "Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher who escaped Hitler's Germany and later scrutinized its morality in "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and other books, died Thursday night in her apartment at 370 Riverside Drive."
- "Questioning the banality of evil" Volume 21 (January 2008), The Psychologist, Retrieved on 2011-03-12
- Arendt, Hannah. "Total Domination." The New York Intellectuals Reader. By Neil Jumonville. New York: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print. 101.
- Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and how Evil Isn't Banal online lecture by Dr. Yaacov Lozowick former Director of the Yad Vashem Archives
- Lisa Peattie "Normalizing the unthinkable," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March 1984, pp. 32-36.
- The Banality of Evil entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy