Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Denounced by Churchmen, is the latest assault on the poor just another case of the banality of evil?

Soon to be a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, has denounced the British government’s policy towards benefits as a ‘disgrace’. He warned that they will leave the poorest and most vulnerable in society facing ‘hunger and destitution.’

Vincent Nichols outside the Catholic Cathedral in Westminster 
Like a great many people, I am deeply distrustful of organised religion. Its leaders, it seems to me, are often on precisely the wrong side of debates, even on the moral questions which should be their principal domain of expertise.

My suspicion is all the deeper because they tend to reason in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, categories that I distrust. After all, no one thinks what they’re doing is evil, however monstrous the act may be: they’re generally convinced that the intention behind the act makes it good. 

So, for instance, no one likes being threatened by foreigners with weapons, as the West’s response to terrorism shows. And yet if Britain manages to avoid being sucked into another adventure in the next few months or so, we may be about to enter the first full year we have enjoyed without military action since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In all that time, Britain has fought to defend its own borders only once, in 1940.

How many people, in how many countries, must have felt that Britain’s behaviour was evil? And yet in this country, we’re convinced that British soldiers are heroes and their behaviour exemplary.

However, my uncertainty about the concept of ‘evil’ was shaken when I came across the work of Hannah Arendt. She is one of my favourite thinkers of the twentieth century. I’ve been dipping into her work again since yesterday evening, when I watched the excellent film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta with Barbara Sukowa in the title role.

Hannah Arendt: acute insight into the nature of evil
Arendt was the writer who coined the expression ‘banality of evil’, from watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann had been in the SS during the Second World War, and his task had been organising the transports to carry Jews to ghettos, to concentration camps and ultimately to extermination camps.

What appalled Arendt, herself a Jew, was the staggering mediocrity of the man.

“The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”

He was a minor cog in a massive bureaucracy, merely doing a difficult job as competently as he could. He didn’t think what he was doing was evil. In fact, Arendt realised, he didn’t think at all.

“... the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”

That’s a particularly powerful statement if you share Arendt’s world view. For her, man is essentially a thinking being. Stop thinking and you deny your very personhood. Deny yours and how can you recognise anyone else’s?

But Arendt’s key thought comes as a question:

“Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?”

An acute insight into the true nature of evil. And if there’s any characteristic that particularly strikes me in the behaviour of the present British government, it’s precisely thoughtlessness. Apparently unable to imagine the suffering they’re inflicting on others, they impose it with the same indifference to the people affected as Eichmann showed.

So perhaps it’s not inappropriate that a Prince of the Church has denounced the government’s attitude. Good and evil are concepts that he works with daily. And what he has denounced seems precisely to fit the Arendt concept of evil in its harrowing banality.

In addition, we read today that a group of charities have found that there is a ‘culture of fear’ in the benefits world these days.

Hunger. Destitution. Fear. Yep, that sounds like the handiwork of evil. The banality and mediocrity of men like David Cameron, George Osborne or Ian Duncan Smith (the benefits minister) shouldn’t delude us into thinking it’s anything else.

After all, Eichmann was just as banal and mediocre.

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