Some things about the 20th century are a bit difficult to understand. At, or at least near, the top of the list is the incredible scope of violence that was unleashed in its two great wars and thereafter. And one of the most appalling examples was the mass detention and execution of non-combatants. It was a dramatic challenge to the notion of universal human dignity.
A person steeped in 19th century ideals could at least have understood that violence of some sort, would be “normal”. After all, the 19th century saw its share of violence as well. But 19th century violence by and large was supposed to take place within the confines of rules of engagement. This confinement could be achieved when the “powers that were” had sufficient power to so insist and they exercised that power. There were counter-examples, like the US Civil War, whose violence exploded far beyond what had been expected. But these were seen as aberrations. Oddities. Uncivilized.
The first great war of the 20th century obliterated at least one of those rules of engagement — that fighting would not lead to massive slaughter of combatants. Slaughter had occurred before, but not in recent memory and not for such an extended period and not at this scale. And when this rule was breached, so went at least some of the moral authority of the established order, not to mention the political power of elites.
Some thought that power would become more dispersed for the benefit of the masses. That democracy would mediate the more violent instincts of mankind. Others had different ideas. They did not want to give up the idea that centralized power is good. Power is order. They just wanted the authority to dictate — beyond contestation — what that good meant. Welcome the fascists, communists and many other —ists who felt little or even no remorse about mass murder in the name of ideology, nationality, ethnicity or any other standard that might be convenient. From a moral perspective, with these new actors, the world was moving into uncharted space.
Then came the second war. This was a war where the idea of being a “non-combatant” or “civilian” lost its meaning. Mass bombing of cities (even fire bombing), internment of civilians, concentration camps, extermination of people en mass all took place. It seemed that anything might happen. And after the war was over, what could one make of the cruelty?
By and large, those that prevailed in the war painted the killers as monsters. Labeled this way, these were not like us good people. And if they were not like us, we are safe from the risk of being corrupted by their like. We could “thank the Lord that the war against fascism has been won!” Or at least, we could publicly and repeatedly declare that we still loathe the monsters. We are monster free!
This was convenient, but is it accurate? Monstrous things happened. But was it because one group alone were monsters? And are we really safe from the lost moral compass that generated such cruelty? Did ending the cruelty of the fascists help us turn a corner about cruelty overall?
Hannah Arendt chose to think about this. She had suffered from the hands of the nazis so she understood what that meant. She wanted to understand what had happened. She wanted to know who those people were that perpetrated such grand crimes. And so she wrote about Eichman on trial in Jerusalem. Here is the starting point for Arendt’s musing
… her thinking and writing were nourished by the insight that existing intellectual tools had turned out to be powerless vis-à-vis totalitarianism. To give you one striking example: the idea that there must be a reason for or a logic to treating someone as an enemy. This tradition of Western thought had shown itself to be powerless. Her main question became: How do we confront the reality of totalitarianism, when it surpasses our understanding? That is where her thinking started, at the place where the knowledge she had did not help her understanding.
Putting this another way, power — even cruelly enforced power — always had been justified somehow in western tradition. Indeed, the worst wars in European history (like the 20 years war) were those with the strongest justification (religion). As such, western people found it difficult to grasp a situation where the exercise of power did not depend on having an historical justification. Instead, one could lie or or even say nothing at all as one did terrible things to innocent people, as long as the actor shared a slogan with those who wielded the guns at that moment. One was in the club or was an outsider. And this opened the door to mediocrities posing as great historical figures. They could do so with impunity as long as they were in the club.
Hannah Arendt made the obvious point that this meant a total moral collapse. She made the less obvious point that it also meant a moral collapse for the victims who were overwhelmed by the loss of meaning in lives. If this was normal, then anything can be accepted as normal. To Arendt, that acceptance would be more horrific than the crimes themselves.
So how to reject it? Only by the detachment that laughter gives. By refusing to give seriousness to the process or to the people who were behind the process. To point out, for example, what a mediocrity Eichman actually was. By retreating back into the moral self, rather than accepting mass produced lies.
In the sixties, this type of rejection of societal norms became part of the youth movement. It was proclaimed, for example, that one should not trust anyone over 30. And respectable people, Sir Kenneth Clark among them, worried that the moral center of society was falling apart, once more. But as the years went by, the youth movement did not offer significant major changes to the power structures that they lived within. The post-war moral compass did not really shift.
And we might argue that the world has not moved to embrace Arendt’s way of thinking. We still cling to the idea that the mass killings of the 20th century are by and large a historical relic. And we do not take seriously that moral collapse is a credible risk of a mass produced world — a world run on the basis of slogans rather than moral conviction. And as we race forward, we still demonize those whom we feel are suspect, whether they are poor or not white or of different religious persuasions. Any and all who are not part of our clubs. And the more we demonize, the more we blind ourselves to the possibility that we ourselves are needlessly cruel.
Lincoln called on something that he called “the better angels of our nature” to help get beyond the horror of war. I would argue that Arendt’s ironic view of Eichman et al was a plea to energize those same better angels. And I would go further. We need to think more deeply about empowering those better angels as we race forward into the 21st century. We have seen what can happen when things go the other way. We don’t want to go in that direction again.