Q: You begin your book with Hannah Arendt. What do you see as the similarities and differences between her phrase "the banality of evil" and your formulation of "the evil of banality"?--Marshal Zeringue
A: Well, first, there's a rhetorical difference. I know that may not seem important, but people's first reactions to the two phrases have been startlingly different.
When Arendt took me with her to public discussions of her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil, some who attended were painfully angered by the very idea that evil – in this case, the undeniable evil of the Holocaust – could be associated at all with "banality."
No, no: it has to be monstrous, and the man, Eichmann, on trial for his effective participation in making genocide possible, had to be in a sense worthy of it by being monstrous himself.
I wondered then if more people might be able and willing to hear what Arendt was actually saying better if she had spoken of "the evil of banality," which inflates "banality" by association, rather than seeming to deflate "evil." It turns out it works.
Asking people to think with me about the searing question that drives this book -- How is it actually possible to do horrific harm to others day after day after day, as the close-in perpetrators of extensive evils such as genocide, enslavement, child prostitution, life-distorting economic exploitation indeed do? – surely asks me in turn to speak in ways that invite minds to stay open.
And that matters a lot: understandably, we want to...[read on]