The Banality of Evil

3년 전

Original drawing by @f3nix

This short essay takes inspiration from the following article by @swissclive. No, I will not talk about how the aliens will create a black hole on earth by taking control of the CERN research center in Geneva, even if I would be tempted to do so. Instead, Swissclive’s stimulating story - narrated in the first person as if it were an authentic experience - made me reflect once again on social dynamics and the reactions of a group in front of news coming from a totally credible source, that guarantees the truthfulness of the facts narrated. As a matter of fact, in this case several steemians believed that his story was a genuine fact and reacted by expressing the most disparate emotional reactions.

The group influences and conforms to certain behaviors in an almost innate way. Just think of the social and psychological phenomenon of mass hysteria. If it is true that the famous case of the panic attack caused by Welles’ 1938 radio program "War of the Words" has been exaggerated, in history there are countless examples of the transmission of collective illusions, triggered like a sparkle in a powder keg and propagating almost like a contagion within a group of people. Some of them are even particularly curious or disturbing like the renowned Salem witch trials.
But let's take a step back and first reflect on human nature and our contemporary homo socialis status.

"Homo homini lupus" ("Man is a wolf to man") says an ancient Latin motto, firstly attributed to the playwright Plauto and subsequently adopted by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in their conception of human nature. Are we all potentially evil under certain environmental circumstances? Is this our nature, a selfish and predatory animal, masked in civil appearances? With all due respect to a more philosophical approach, I feel that investigating people's behaviour from a social and psychological perspective can give us a better insight about this strange animal called human, and in a more pragmatical way. Our behaviour is the expression of our nature, in the end.

The banality of Evil

"Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil" is an essay from Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), an American naturalized German philosopher and writer. I strongly recommend this book to all those who are still incredulous at the inexplicable horrors of the twentieth century and wish to obtain a unique perspective on human nature under the light of one of the most tragic events in human history, the Holocaust. This essay is a report of the author, sent by the New Yorker, on the sessions of Adolf Eichmann's trial. After the defeat of the regime, the Nazi hierarch fled to Argentina in 1945. Subsequently, Eichmann was captured by the Israelis in 1960, tried for genocide in Jerusalem in 1961 and, finally, sentenced to death by hanging.

What emerges from the detailed account of the hearings of the trial, is the shocking but disarming finding on the nature of Nazism: that, for the most part of it, it's been a mass phenomenon based on the uncritical adjustment to trivial and mechanical routines.
We think to such an important process and we would expect to find this Eichmann as a diabolically intelligent and perverse being. Truth is that what the book reveals is nothing but an ordinary man, who has done what he has done driven by the desire to please his superiors and advance in his career. A man who followed orders without questioning them.

Here's Arendt description of Adolf Eichmann:

I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer [ie Eichmann] which made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer – at least the very effective one now on trial – was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.

As of 2017, daily social media usage worldwide amounted to 135 minutes per day, up from 126 daily minutes in the previous year (source). In times where social media can determine the results of political elections, if not the whole fate of nations, we need to be aware that "evil" in all its social shapes is not a detectable phenomenon, but an ordinary process in which our consciences slowly slide into oblivion. E gradually stop questioning orders, disobeying, thinking with our brain, remembering the past.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

During my university studies, when writing my dissertation on the rights of prisoners, I came across two social experiments whose result are both shocking and insightful. I think that understanding these experiments may be a good antidote for countering that "lupus" that lies in the shadow within everyone of us.

The Stanford prison experiment (SPE), was held at Stanford University in August 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. The experiment engaged 24 college students, equally divided in the roles of "prisoners" and "guards" and each paid $15 per day (Approximately $90 in 2017) to participate in a 7-14 day period of stay in a prison-alike environment, settled purposely in the basement of the Stanford's psychology building.

The guards' suit was stereotypical of a certain common perception. They were dressed with uniforms and mirror sunglasses, carrying a whistle around their neck and even a billy club. They were also specifically instructed by Zimbardo, who held the role of "superintendent", a sort of prison's director, as follows:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy ... We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation, we'll have all the power and they'll have none.

After answering to a local newspaper and expressing their intention to participate in a vaguely described study on the psychological effects of prison life, the applicants whose been assigned with the prisoner's role were "arrested" at their homes by real city police collaborating with Zimbardo, blindfolded and taken to the simulated prison environment.

This is the description of the prisoner's introductory modalities to the experiment:

A degradation procedure was designed in part to humiliate prisoners and in part to be sure they weren't bringing in any germs to contaminate our jail. This procedure was similar to the scenes captured by Danny Lyons in these Texas prison photos.
The prisoner was then issued a uniform. The main part of this uniform was a dress, or smock, which each prisoner wore at all times with no underclothes. On the smock, in front and in back, was his prison ID number. On each prisoner's right ankle was a heavy chain, bolted on and worn at all times. Rubber sandals were the footwear, and each prisoner covered his hair with a stocking cap made from a woman's nylon stocking.

The experiment, whose details you can read here, narrates of an escalation of abuses and real tortures perpetrated by the guards to the prisoners. It was forced to be aborted after seven days from its beginning, due to the strong ethical and moral objections of Christina Maslach, a psychology student that was invited to observe the experiment and the future wife of Zimbardo.
Slowly during the experiment, the applicants lost their perception of individuals and fully embraced their role. This was applicable for Zimbardo too, who had to admit he had been "grossly absorbed", allowing psychological and physical violence to be performed under his supervision.
One third of the guards showed "genuine sadistic tendencies", and the prisoners have reported severe psychological traumas.

A clear demonstration of the depersonalization and deindividuation process, is given by the story of prisoner #819 (obviously, prisoners were called by their number and not with their name):

The only prisoner who did not want to speak to the priest was Prisoner #819, who was feeling sick, had refused to eat, and wanted to see a doctor rather than a priest. Eventually he was persuaded to come out of his cell and talk to the priest and superintendent so we could see what kind of a doctor he needed. While talking to us, he broke down and began to cry hysterically, just as had the other two boys we released earlier. I took the chain off his foot, the cap off his head, and told him to go and rest in a room that was adjacent to the prison yard. I said that I would get him some food and then take him to see a doctor.

While I was doing this, one of the guards lined up the other prisoners and had them chant aloud: "Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer." They shouted this statement in unison a dozen times.
As soon as I realized that #819 could hear the chanting, I raced back to the room where I had left him, and what I found was a boy sobbing uncontrollably while in the background his fellow prisoners were yelling that he was a bad prisoner. No longer was the chanting disorganized and full of fun, as it had been on the first day. Now it was marked by utter conformity and compliance, as if a single voice was saying, "#819 is bad."

I suggested we leave, but he refused. Through his tears, he said he could not leave because the others had labelled him a bad prisoner. Even though he was feeling sick, he wanted to go back and prove he was not a bad prisoner.

At that point I said, "Listen, you are not #819. You are [his name], and my name is Dr. Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let's go."

He stopped crying suddenly, looked up at me like a small child awakened from a nightmare, and replied, "Okay, let's go."

Notwithstanding its importance, this experiment came under heavy criticism and could never be repeated nowadays, due to stricter ethical protocols.

The Third Wave

Source: "Die Welle" (movie, 2008)

"How is it possible that a whole nation blindly followed such an evil dictatorship, denying its horrible crimes?"

Let's go back to Hanna Arendt for a moment. When thinking about the atrocities of the Nazi regime during the second world war, it's possible that we came to wonder and ask ourselves a similar question.
Perhaps, another thought crossing our mind could have been something like: "I would have been different, I would have joined the resistance, I would have never accepted such crimes against humanity without questioning".

Indeed we are different, better, more prepared. Aren't we?

In 1967, Ron Jones, a high school history teacher, set an enlightening experiment with his unaware students, an experiment that they would have never forgotten.
It took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, and aimed to give an answer to the incapability of the students to figure how German population could have claimed their ignorance about the Holocaust.

Ron Jones decided that the best answer was a demonstration through a social experiment: he created a movement, named "The Third Wave", similar to an exclusive club within the High School. The purpose of the movement was to eliminate democracy and its motto was "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride".

Similarly to the Stanford Prison's one, this experiment soon started to show increasingly worrisome behaviours between the students and soon started to derail and get out of control. To give an idea of the almost contagious spreading of the experiment between the students, hereunder I reported an abstract taken from teacher Ron Jones' original short story, first published in 1976:

Monday - day 1

In speed drills the class learned to move from standing position to attention sitting in fifteen seconds. In focus drills I concentrated attention on the feet being parallel and flat, ankles locked, knees bent at ninety degree angles, hands flat and crossed against the back, spine straight, chin down, head forward. We did noise drills in which talking was allowed only to be shown as a detraction. Following minutes of progressive drill assignments, the class could move from standing positions outside the room to attention sitting positions at their desks without making a sound. The maneuver took five seconds.
It was strange how quickly the students took to this uniform code of behaviour I began to wonder just how far they could be pushed. Was this display of obedience a momentary game we were all playing, or was it something else. Was the desire for discipline and uniformity a natural need? A societal instinct we hide within our franchise restaurants and T.V. programming.

Thursday - last day of the experiment:

On Thursday I began to draw the experiment to a conclusion. I was exhausted and worried. Many students were over the line. The Third Wave had become the centre of their existence. I was in pretty bad shape myself. I was now acting instinctively as a dictator. Oh, I was benevolent. And I daily argued to myself on the benefits of the learning experience. By this, the fourth day of the experiment I was beginning to lose my own arguments. As I spent more time playing the role I had less time to remember its rational origins and purpose. I found myself sliding into the role even when it wasn't necessary.

The experiment lasted 4 days, even less than Zimbardo's one and was interrupted in order to avoid serious consequences. Note that, similarly to Zimbardo, who ended up being deeply influenced by his own experiment, also teacher Ron Jones admitted in his report the fascination of his position of power and predominance over the students.


There's a common thread that links Arendt's essay and the two socio-psychological experiments above described: the vulnerability of the individual oppressed or simply engulfed by an authoritarian control system and the speed of the social depersonalisation process, triggered by specific environmental circumstances. At the same time, the two experiments and, in particular, Eichmann's hearings, evidence the presence of a foreseeable pattern in human behaviour, represented by a wish for conformity with the mass. This is particularly evident in the process that led a whole nation - with some relevant exceptions, tough - to blindly abide and feed the well lubed Nazi dictatorship. Such desire emerges inexorably when the individual is forced or, in general, surrounded by an authoritarian and well organised superstructure, whether this is a prison, a movement, a political party or a bureaucratic apparatus.

Perhaps, sometimes it's worth to invest more time in understanding our human nature, our innate brain mechanisms and social dynamics and, most of all, try to learn from History.
We may raise our antibodies and counter our instincts, but this requires a preliminary effort of knowledge and self-awareness. Only this way, through exercising our criticism, we will be able to recognise the next Leviathan who's going to menace our freedom.

I will end with a question: at what level can we discern some of the above mentioned social behaviors within the Steemit platform?

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One is by doing exactly what we need to do, posting only what is asked of, from, say the contests you find. In order to stay in the contest, you must abide by what the rules are, such as timing, or what subject is about. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, you will still do as is asked. Our brains want to please our own being, by doing what must be done.
I'm not sure if that makes any sense. My words are twisting, to what I am trying to say.


Well Pixie, I consider what you write as a confirmation of the theories/experiments quoted in the post. Your comment is of great relevance as it underlines the hurge to abide to social rules and the following sense of pleasure for the community member. In part this mechanism is essential and innate in our human nature, on the other hand we should protect the value of our individuality and independent thinking.


Indeed :) Now if my ocd lighten up, as well as my "need" to do things right, lol. I crack my coworkers up if/when I do something out of the ordinary. I'm a rule follower, but sometimes question why. It's ok to bend (some) rules, as long as nobody gets hurt and no laws are broken. I find those times to help me be more relaxed. I fear my mistakes, and I should not, because my past was just that, my past.
My motto, "shit happens, so let it go, and move on."


The most important rules are those within ourselves, our values. Not always they match with those in our society. Good motto Pixie.

As I learn this thoughtful article, I'm not worried about Steemit platform, but about Italian today politics. I see a bit of this "banality of evil" in many people that are quite empathic and peaceful, but they are careless of the fate of some social or ethnic group, even thinking they "deserve" this hard fate. When they eat tomatoes or sauce they don't care about these vegetables being harvested by African semi-slaves in the south, the same they think are making a "bella vita" paid by the State, because this thing happens far from their eyes... And they absolutely want to keep their eyes far from disturbing things like that.
"If this doesn't affect me, I don't care", "I've got more important problems to deal with", "People are poor because their fault", "I can't do anything about it"...this is the banality of evil for me.

I also have the doubt in Italy the Stanford experiment or the Third Wave would have had the same result. We're selfish and used to bend and break all the rules... I think there would have been different social distorsions, like part of the "prisoners" and part of the "guards" creating a mafia-like parallel group, or a merely formal rule application and a creation of a subset of unwritten "true rules"...


You make me remember a video of Caparezza about Puglia. The banality of evil is a slow decline into the oblivion of this whole social system made of indifferent lotus eaters. I don't know and I don't care about Italy or Netherland, honestly. Yes, of course, I do understand your point but, after being traumatized in that bloody island for the rest of my whole life, a lot of things changed within myself, even If I try to hide it and be the same as always. Thank you for reading this brick ;-)

This post was shared in the Curation Collective Discord community for curators, and upvoted and resteemed by the @c-squared community account after manual review.

Thank you @c-squared! I will take a look at your community.