February 28, 2007

Wisdom from the Arendt Thread

Wisdom from the Arendt Thread

The dense and electric thread on the Hannah Arendt show is, as of now, nearing 240 comments. Here are some nuggets of wisdom pulled from the conversation:

Claiming that evil is banal removes its power, yet also makes it harder to recognize…Even the most horrible things in our world do not have Satan’s hand behind them. Evil acts are not committed by ‘Evil-doers’ but rather by ordinary people who see them as ordinary acts. This, I believe, is the only evil which exists anymore.

Bobo, in a comment to Open Source, 2/18/07

By making evil the possession of others – it is outside of the self – you release yourself from responsibility – ‘I was only taking orders, my actions can’t be evil.’ To remove the overwhelming power of evil, is to place it in the individual, where it originates.

Lumiere, in a comment to Open Source, 2/18/07

It seems that in the American context the real banality of evil is that it is always the other that is evil, and even if it’s me, it’s the other me, in different time and place, while my real me is here and now, and it’s good.

Igor, in a comment to Open Source, 2/21/07

The word ‘Evil’ attempts to explain a concept that ‘exists’ exclusively in the (subjective) opinions of humans – it ‘exists’ entirely in our minds, not in the natural world. (Hence the definition’s concluding — and predictable — retreat into supernaturalism.)

Nick, in a comment to Open Source, 2/21/07

A little over a year ago, I was talking to an old man who sometimes begs on the street when he can’t get through the month. I told him that I had become homeless that day. He took $2 out of his wallet and told me to buy myself a hamburger. The people who were decent to me during that time tended to be poor people. They treated me with warmth and usually made a point of telling me that I shouldn’t feel ashamed that this happened to me…

Empathy is not banal. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it, that what you see and feel is obvious. It’s not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy may even be relatively rare. Certainly, it is unusual.

Kate McShane, in a comment to Open Source, 2/18/07

Related Content


  • RobertPeel

    Lumiere reminds me of Rene Girard work The Scapegoat. It is a short work about how we humans need to create scapegoats i.e. the majority minus one. I liked Kate’s homeless story but also her reminder that empathy is the antidote to the banality of the scapegoat complex. What would have Eichman become if he becvame empathetic.

  • Nick

    Kate McShane rocks. (Post more, would ya?)

  • Nick

    PS: Re Empathy…

    While reading a book review in the latest Discover magazine (March, 2007, page 65) I found this:

    “This unusual syncretic exercise between (a scientific) academy and a major world religion (Buddhism) may rouse suspicion among hard-nosed skeptics, but an open mind here will be rewarded. The research does not concern metaphysical claims regarding reincarnation and karma; rather, it involves measurable, replicable effects of Buddhist mediation practices on the mind and brain. This rigorous mental training drives neuroplasticity in ways that awe many of the scientists studying it. Brain scans reveal that the neural activity of highly trained monks is off the charts, relative to meditation novices, in circuits that involve maternal love (caudate), empathy, (right insula), and feelings of joy and happiness (left prefrontal cortex). Even when these monks are not meditating, their brains bear the imprints of their psychic workout. The latter two structures, for instance, are anatomically enlarged. Based on results like these, (author Sharon) Begley holds out hope that our emotional lives and personalities, far from being carved in stone by our genes and early experiences, will prove as sculptalbe through mental training as our bodies are through physical training.”

    The book is Train Your Brain, Change Your Mind

    Also reviewed: The Brain That Changes Itself

    The implications of that one review paragraph are, well, fascinating. For instance, although I knew that Buddhism is a mental training practice along with being a godless ‘faith’, I’m thrilled to read of the physical, anatomical effects of meditation. And I didn’t know that empathy stemmed from any one place in the brain, such as the insula. Wow. Food for thought, hmmm?

    If empathy stems from a part of the brain and science can detect it, why is it so impeded in everyday living? What facet of Buddhist meditation can we learn to practice, without having to adopt along with it the metaphysics that knuckleheaded science-minded dopes like me don’t find appealing?

  • herbert browne

    Kate’s story reminded me why poverty (& hard times, generally) are easier for the poor to endure– they’re used to it. Not being pre-occupied with the accumulation & protection of possessions leads to another kind of “accumulation”, maybe… “blessed are the Poor, in Spirit..”

    Re: “If empathy stems from a part of the brain and science can detect it, why is it so impeded in everyday living? What facet of Buddhist meditation can we learn to practice, without having to adopt along with it the metaphysics that knuckleheaded science-minded dopes like me don’t find appealing?”-

    Perhaps the framework of the metaphysical aspects are a sort of “protective” measure… something to inhibit a tendency to want to Rule the Earth, once one is endowed with these great mental capacities. It may have been apocryphal, but I recall stories of certain groups of SS officers being trained in meditational exercises by Tibetan Buddhist monks… ^..^

  • Sir Otto

    “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there.”

    Wasn’t it Socrates – “The only evil is ignorance. Knowledge the only good.”?

    I think this quote from Mr.Elon demonstrates just that.

  • Nick

    Sir Otto, thank you for opening my mind to a different interpretation of that quote from Elon. It only just now occured to me that this:

    as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there

    …can be understood to mean that ‘evil’ is phantasmical. No more ‘real’ than an apparition. As ‘real’ as a garden variety ‘monster’ lurking beneath a child’s bed.

    I can’t guess whether it was your intent to illuminate that interpretation, but thank you nevertheless.

  • katemcshane

    RobertPeel — thank you for the reference to Girard’s THE SCAPEGOAT. I’m on my way to the library. It is a concept that is near the center of all my observations of the world. Strangely, though, I haven’t read about it.

    Nick — thank you for the references to meditation and empathy. I felt very excited when I read about this. I don’t have the background to fully appreciate the scientific aspects of this, but I’ll get what I need from it.

    herbert browne — While I’m glad you’re thinking about poor people, I believe that the idea of the poor as being free of the burden of possessions is too romantic. (I have to rant a bit about this subject, but I don’t want you to think I’m directing the rant at you, because I’m really not.)

    Chris Hedges discusses this romantic notion of the poor that is taught in religious environments, in particular, in LOSING MOSES ON THE HIGHWAY, where he describes his experience working in Mission Hill in Boston while at Harvard Divinity School. Having come from a similar religious experience, I remember the way so-called radical Christians in the 1960’s romanticized the poor (Blessed are the poor, etc.), imagining that they had so much more than the rich. And I remember what a seductive concept it was. Poor people don’t have the very basic requirements for survival. While the rich can afford to sit back and think about creativity and spirituality, for instance, two very popular subjects these days among people with a lot of leisure time, the poor, even when working two and three jobs, have their focus narrowed to finding the money for the T to work, dinner, and the toilet paper they need to buy that day. And if you’re not getting one of those pathetic salaries low-wage workers make, you spend a lot of time on the street, trying to keep going all day, desperate to find a way to buy or steal cheap food, aware of where all the public bathrooms are — and success in these areas, alone, begins to feel like the most you can hope for. Finding a job would be a miracle on the level of changing water into wine. It is a crushing experience that kills people by inches. The figure I heard this week was something like 16 million people in the United States are desperately poor, while the number of people who have serious “food insecurity” (the government’s term for hunger) is around 35 million. In this society, we’re taught that it’s not our problem: it’s the responsibility of these individuals. Not true. This country has become a hell for millions of people, who do not feel blessed, and by imagining that it’s alright, somehow, each of us determines that ALL of us will live in a hellish world rather than the rich world it could be, where we are all blessed. My thinking is idealistic, as it should be.

  • Tom B

    It just struck me that ‘Wisdom from the Arendt Thread’ is — in financial lingo — a DERIVATIVE, i.e. a second order instrument perched atop the foundation of: ‘Hannah Arendt and The Banality of Evil’. Perhaps we are poised for a whole slew of derivatives? What other financial concepts could be applied to ROS? Licensing vowels? Patenting consonants? Buying and selling individual posts? Hiring professional managers to eliminate redundancies in posts? Platforming interminable on-line conference calls sprinkled with words like ‘synergy’, ‘excellence’, ’emergent’, and phrases like ‘improve the quality of life….’. Is expanding ROS’s scope and reach is an organizationally valid extension of its existing presence? Or do ya’all think it would be reaching beyond our present capabilities and competencies? (He He He).

  • Igor

    Well, thinking of empathy and evil in financial terms _is_ banal (and evil too if you care to look deep enough)…