Could these revelations help banish the robotic reiteration of the phrase the banality of evil as an explanation for everything bad that human beings do? Arendt may not have intended that the phrase be used this way, but one of its pernicious effects has been to make it seem as though the search for an explanation of the mystery of evil done by “ordinary men” is over. As though by naming it somehow explains it and even solves the problem. It’s a phrase that sounds meaningful and lets us off the hook, allows us to avoid facing the difficult question.

Ron Rosenbaum

What difficult question? Why ordinary people do “evil” things? There is no one ultimate reason, just particular reasons related to the individual circumstances surrounding the acts themselves. (I suppose you could also ponder the fact that the human species is an especially psychotic type of chimpanzee, if you’re looking for a more general explanation.) Why does it need to be more complicated than that? In fact, this is one of those dilemmas people create by making needless distinctions in the first place; in this case, pretending that there is a class of actions so depraved, so anti-life, so utterly out of keeping with the nature of existence itself that only an equally special type of infernal monster can handle the thought of them, let alone carrying them out. Really, don’t we know better by now?

Hell, it seems to me that some people just like to stay stuck in a pose of seeking, endlessly seeking, making a big spectacle of refusing to settle for anything offered, because the Big Questions Must be Definitively Answered. But, you know, if you’re obsessed with words and definitions, you’ll just keep wandering around in circles in the dictionary forever. At some point, you’ll just have to allow experience to be its own explanation. It’s not a symbol signifying or pointing to something truer, deeper, more essential. It just is. And a lot of the time, it’s something horrifying to our sensibilities. That’s your given. Start from there.

To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It’s a bankrupt phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism. Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types, but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders.

Okay, fine, but…

Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn’t know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.

Aren’t we supposed to be in a post-Christian world or something? Couldn’t we also stop throwing around the ridiculous metaphysical term “evil” itself? Does it really require much in the way of “intellectual sophistication” to recognize the utter absurdity of pretending that this or that action somehow violates the very spirit of life itself or rends the fabric of the universe with its inherent wrongness? Nothing you can imagine is so horrible and unspeakable that it hasn’t already happened countless times, and yet, everything keeps on keeping on. Acquiesce if you want. Oppose if you must. But stop pretending that there’s any “higher” purpose to doing so.