Sunday, December 28, 2008

the dark side

Watched Taxi to the Dark Side this evening. Found myself crying a little (yes, Erica, again), frightened and saddened and frustrated and thinking too much about the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt, who first coined the phrase in 1963's Eichmann in Jerusalem, argued that what was so shocking about Eichmann was his very normality. He came across, to her at least, as being little more than a high-level bureaucrat who happened to have the task of streamlining the Jews' deportation to the death camps, and who performed the task, without independent thought, without any introspection on morality, exceedingly well.

There have been various studies over the years on the human capacity for cruelty, including Stanley Milgrom's shock experiments at Yale and Philip Zimbardo's infamous Prison Experiment at Stanford (re-enacted pop-culturally speaking in LeGuin's The Dispossessed and TV's Veronica Mars, but also apparently recently re-enacted for real). These two in particular, along with Arendt's theories, have in some ways come to dominate the field, at least in so far as almost everyone has heard of them. Two psychology professors writing for The Psychologist earlier this year argue that this dominance has actually been a detriment to the field by limiting further study.

But the banality of evil exists, whether it is manifested in powerful figures like Eichmann (or Cheney and Rumsfeld and their defense of torture) or in the individuals actually charged with carrying out relatively mundane acts (German civilians building the railroads that brought the Jews to the concentration camps; American soldiers charged with prepping a prisoner for questioning) that culminate in horrifying brutality, or, most likely, somewhere in the interactions between these two groups. The above-mentioned professors point out the quite obvious (but also sometimes ignored) notion that "brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology." Our leaders equivocate and dodge and set up legal justifications for brutality (Cheney minimizing waterboarding, the so-called 'ticking time-bomb scenario', it's only torture if your organs fail) and then blame a few 'bad apples' when scandals like Abu Ghraib go public.

No matter whether this evil comes down from the higher echelons of power or rises up from the masses, it remains a horrifying thing, this seeming ease with which people can sink into cruelty, can so easily fall into committing inhumane acts, and can be convinced that these acts are normal, even acceptable.*

But also this evening I've been listening to some Jose Gonzalez, who apparently has been around for awhile, but whom I only recently discovered: heartbeats, crosses, teardrop.

Which in turn got me to pulling out a couple old and much beloved Massive Attack songs: teardrop, risingson, unfinished sympathy, safe from harm.

Which made me feel a whole lot better.

*A couple other interesting articles on this stuff are here, here, here and here.

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