Both Arendt’s “banality of evil” and Hunter’s “character” require community. Community is what makes possible both Hitler and Bonhoeffer. Perhaps then we should rid ourselves of community and efface the problem and its solution together? Perhaps if there’s no “banality of evil,” it won’t matter that character is dead? Perhaps, but answering that question will require determining if it’s possible for humans to not be communal, which will eventually direct us to the work of A.J. Conyers.
If James Hunter is correct, character requires community, out of which ideas, customs, and the like emerge to make character possible. If this is the case, community generates both the possibility of extraordinary evil and the character to stand against that evil.1, 2 For Arendt, extraordinary evil requires a condition in which evil isn’t thought of as “evil,” for “everyday people” must think of what they are doing as “reasonable,” “necessary,” “ordinary,” and/or the like, and this requires a community — whether a nation state, city, etc. — that excludes from full consideration “the other” who suffers violence and mistreatment. All community is necessarily particular, and “particularity is inherently exclusive.”3 Hence, community necessarily excludes those who do not choose to change to match the values and terms of the community. This being the case, community is indivisible from the possibility of excluding “the other” in ways that make possible extraordinary evil, and yet at the same time, ‘[g]rounded in [particular community], ethical ideals carry moral authority […] it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient.’4 Without community, it is not possible for “the banality of evil” as Arendt describes it, but those like Thomas Moore and Bonhoeffer aren’t possible either.5
Hannah Arendt’s solution to stopping “the banality of evil” wasn’t to erase community; her solution was empathy. For her, true thinking necessitated “stepping outside” one’s own ideology and viewing it critically; better yet, it involved “stepping into another’s shoes” and understanding one’s own ideology through the ideology of another. True thinking requires empathy for Arendt, and those who fail to empathize are those prone to fall victim to “the banality of evil.” To abandon empathy is to abandon thinking.
For Arendt, mass evil occurs when committing, allowing, and/or participating in evil becomes something people do “on autopilot” — like how people go to work, put away the dishes, pay their bills, etc. — and this includes continuing to believe what you have always believed, defending your ideology and view of the world, and the like. Empathy necessarily stands against these “autopilot”-tendencies: if you try to understand the world through the eyes of “the other,” you must confront what you have always believed, you must critique your ideology, and you must rethink all the assumptions you have taken for granted. For Arendt, empathy is what can save us from “the banality of evil,” and empathy is what human beings must engage in everyday, for when a person ceases to empathize and identify with others, the person loses humanity. With empathy, it is possible to live in community with “belonging” and avoid the dangers Arendt describes, but unfortunately community seems to tend toward tribalism.
It could be argued that empathy is too difficult for the majority to develop, that it is an impractical solution to the problem of “the banality of evil.” Additionally, the same could be said about character: too few people develop it to balance and stand against “the banality of evil” which community also makes possible. Considering this, the better option seems to be erasing of community all together; without it, though someone like Bonhoeffer is no longer possible, Hitler also becomes a distant dream. The loss of community is both the loss of character and “the banality of evil” — isn’t that a fair trade?
A very important question must be asked: is it possible for humans to exist without community? If humans are innately communal creatures and will create communities, there is no need to even ponder the possibility of a world without it. If there will almost always be communities as long as there are humans (and feral children are evidence of what happens to people when totally isolated), then there will always be both the possibility of character and “the banality of evil.” But surely this cannot be the case: the whole point of this paper is to ask “how can humans belong again?”, which surely means that humans no longer have the communities they once did. Indeed — we don’t feel like we “belong” — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t “social gatherings” of various kinds. What has happened today is that communities no longer have the authority, consistency, and prevalence they once did (as the work of Robert D. Putnam shows in Bowling Alone, for example). Yes, people still have friend groups, people still attend church, and people still have lunch outings, but these social gatherings don’t provide people with the same “belonging” as did older structures of society. We are modern, lone wanderers over fog-covered plains, desperate for home. We shall elaborate on this condition for a section before returning to the pressing question of if Bonhoeffer is worth Hitler. Perhaps the loss of both is worthwhile trade.
1In light of “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, if it is the case that “the map is indestructible,” then once problematic ideologies emerge, it very well might be too late. Hence, the battle of ideas about “the everyday” must be preventative; reactionary, ideas must lose.
2Once something like Nazi Germany arises, the ways that it is a result of “the banality of evil” and the ways that it results from “Lucifer Effect”-like situations can resemble two rivers that merge, become indistinguishable, and then split-off again.
3Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 12.
4Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: 11.
5If community/character isn’t possible without religion, then so too is impossible “the banality of evil.”