The Banality of Outrage
By Dr Adil Najam
In 1961, political philosopher Hannah Arendt – one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century – travelled to Jerusalem as a reporter for The New Yorker to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a senior Nazi official in the Gestapo who played a leading role in organizing the Holocaust.
Arendt’s dispatches later became the very controversial and even more influential book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The slim volume – and most importantly the concept embodied in its subtitle – went on to become a seminal philosophical artefact of our times. The book was much debated by political theorists, Holocaust historians, and activists; particularly in the context of the substance of the Eichmann trial. However, the central – and harrowing – insight that the term ‘banality of evil’ sheds into the nature of evil, and of its perpetrators, resonates well beyond that context. Including, maybe especially, today’s Pakistan.
Those who have ever wondered how a seemingly ‘ordinary’ person could possibly undertake deeds of unspeakable horror – and how equally ‘normal’ people can claim to rationalize, if not defend, the mind-numbing senselessness of the patently evil – would do well to read Arendt’s treatise. In choosing the word ‘banal’ she is not suggesting that the deeds were in any way ‘commonplace’ or ‘trivial.’ She is arguing, instead, that the evil of Eichmann’s actions – as a top administrator in the Nazi death camps – was made even more terrible because he had trained himself to see them as no more than the merely routine. “The lesson that this long course in human wickedness has taught us”, Hannah Arendt points out, is “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
Arendt saw certain “ludicrousness” in Eichmann standing in the dock. She reports that “the deeds were monstrous, but the doer … neither demonic nor monstrous.” As he ranted in his defense, she found him “neither perverted nor sadistic” and without “any diabolical or demonic profundity.” Indeed, her most chilling realization was that he was “terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Characterized by, more than any other thing, his own “sheer thoughtlessness.”
That is the essence of the banality of evil. The idea that great evil can be perpetuated not only by fanatical sociopaths but also by ordinary people who so conform to a corrupt premise that they view their actions as entirely ordinary, entirely defensible, even sensible. Banality is terrifying precisely because it emanates from the inability to recognize, acknowledge and confront evil for what it is.
All of this is eerily relevant to today’s Pakistan. The church massacre in Peshawar is only the latest reminder in a string of reminders that evil lives in our midst. But also, and maybe even more excruciating, is the realization of a certain banality that is most evident in the discourse that sprouts as routinely and as predictably as the evil itself.
Bombings. Killings. Bloodshed. All have become routine. And routinised. Commonplace. Banal. Or, as Hannah Arendt may have put it, “terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Out of desperation more than analysis, we often call these acts, “thoughtless.” And in more profound ways than we may imagine, that is exactly what they are: devoid of – starved of – critical thought. The banality is as self-evident in the discourse of those who commit this evil, as it is in the lamentations of those who purport to understand its context. And the realization that other ‘ordinary’ people – in many ways as ‘ordinary’ as ourselves – will not see the injustice that is so very obvious to us pierces the heart as much as the injustice itself.
The only recourse one has, then, is grief. And, outrage.
In Pakistan, the predictability of senseless acts of violence is matched only by the predictability of outrage. It is a lie that we remain silent. As big a lie as the one about Muslims never speaking out about atrocities by other Muslims. Maybe it was once true, but it has not been true for a long time now. Because we have had so many unfortunate opportunities, we have perfected our rituals of outrage: editorials, TV talk shows, social media, political condemnations.
But outrage in a divided society is also divided. We are all outraged by these events, but very differently outraged. We do not rush to embrace and comfort each other in our times of tribulation. We scream out in pain. Mostly, we scream at each other. We point fingers. We score points. We jab partisan barbs. Nearly always we get into verbal bouts. Sometimes, into fist-fights. Our outrage has become cliché-ridden. As predictable, as commonplace, as those acts of violence themselves. There is, to coin a phrase, a certain banality in our outrage.
To suggest that there is a banality of outrage is not to suggest that it is not sincere. Far from it. Our hurt is real each time we are hit. Our tears are real. The hurt does not lessen over time. The tears never stop streaming. The trail of tragedy is too long to recount, but this is not a pain you get used to.
Our banality of outrage emanates from the futility of outrage. Hannah Arendt would have been the first to recognize that outrage has political potence. Ours does not.
The banality of our outrage emanates not just from the fact that it has become predictable and commonplace. Our outrage is banal, because it is politically impotent. It does not lead to action – neither political, nor societal. This impotence of outrage makes us more enraged, but it does not make our outrage any more effective. Hence, the banality of outrage.
This banality of outrage also has its farcical moments. Well-meaning, but farcical nonetheless. One such ritual is the all-too-predictable discussion on ‘whodunit’ that triggers off as soon as a bomb goes off. We become voyeuristically glued to any signs of rumor or news on who will take responsibility for that terrorist attack. As if we do not know? As if knowing the answer would make a difference in our view of whoever takes responsibility? As if we are ever able to bring those who do claim responsibility to justice?
In a functional polity, tragedy leads to outrage, outrage leads to introspection, introspection to action. In our case, the tragedies come so fast and furious and the very fabric of society is so tattered that there is no time for introspection and no political stomach for action. Our outrage, therefore, is catharsis at best; venomous vomiting at worst.
If we sound cynical, there is much reason to be so. If we lunge at each other’s throats, it is because we are a divided society. If we sound exhausted in our grief, it is because we are. But most of all, our outrage seems banal because we do not believe that outrage will lead to action, let alone change. Indeed, there seems to be a pervasive certainty that it will not. That, more than all else, explains our banality of outrage.
But our outrage need not necessarily be banal.
Hannah Ardent’s answer to the problems posed by the banality of evil was ‘thoughtfulness’. Not just thinking, but critical thinking. She suggested that there is “a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil” and wondered if “the activity of thinking as such… could ‘condition’ men against evildoing.” She was referring, I would like to believe, to education in the truest and deepest sense as the answer to the problem of ‘evil’.
If, indeed, our banality of outrage is real, its answer lies in action. Outrage is wasted if it does not lead to action. Maybe a dose of ‘thoughtfulness’ will also help in structuring our own outrage.
The belief that nothing will happen needs to give way to the resolve that something must. The way ahead in linking action and words in outrage is pointed, again, by Hannah Arendt in her other book The Human Condition: “Of all the activities necessary and present in human communities, only two were deemed to be political and to constitute what Aristotle called the bios politikos, names action (praxis) and speech (lexis), out of which rises the realm of human affairs.” Lexis without praxis, is a recipe for the banality of outrage.