Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"Only the Good Has Depth That Can Be Radical": Hannah Arendt on Banality of Evil — Critically Important Role of Thought and Imagination as Fascist Tide Rises

A key point of Hannah Arendt's analysis of the banality of evil is that evil is essentially stupid, as it manifests itself in the social arena. Evil lacks imagination. It does the same (misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist, fascist) thing over and over, expecting always the same results — since doing the same  (misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist, fascist) thing last time worked. So surely it will work again….

It worked before to lather the crowds into a frenzy of hate, shouting "Lock her up!" about another woman. Why not try it again? 

It works! It has predictable results. And what's a little hate, a lot of misogyny heaped on several weeks of ugly misogyny, between friends and fellow citizens?

Fascist tactics have brute force going for them. They have on their side the sadly predictable banality of human collectives always ready and willing to descend into animalistic behavior when the right motivator — someone adroit at bringing out the basest in people and manipulating their grossest instincts — comes along.

What they do not have on their side is intelligence. Or imagination. Or creativity.

If we are going to survive the dark period of human history into which the global community is spiraling, as little trumps everywhere gorge people with racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, we will need to develop creative, intelligent, imaginative ways to push back. 

We will need, as Hannah Arendt and many other students of how fascism implants itself in societies and how it must be resisted have told us, to reframe conversations and seize control of language so that the banality of evil is not the only option people who are seeking their way in a confusing world see. The essential, core rebellion is (Orwell is crystal-clear on this point) to refuse to permit our imaginations to be hobbled by the official purveyors of received truth or wisdom, but to insist on our right as thinking, creative human beings to reframe received truth or wisdom to reflect what we actually see and not what we are told to see.

Here are some examples of this process in recent days. The opportunities for this kind of creative refusal of the crude fascism seeking now to rule our minds, hearts, and lives are more numerous than can be counted. In our own ways, each in our own places, we can make a difference as we refuse to accept the received (misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist, fascist) truth or wisdom, and talk back to it intelligently and imaginatively.

Speak up. Stand up. Refuse to understand or imagine the world in the way the powers that be tell us it should be understood and imagined. Our lives and the lives of others depend on our willingness to do this.

Hannah Arendt's observation that "only the good has depth that can be radical" is from a letter she wrote to Gerhard Scholem in December 1964.

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