Evil is an ordinary little thing

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By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO*

It spreads insidiously, and no one usually notices it at first, when it seems like an easily dismissed, trivial, even childish little thing.

As Hannah Arendt said, evil has neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can grow too big and destroy the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus across its surface, thanks to our neglect and indifference.

The comparison of evil with a fungus, so derisive, so mixed up, so unnoticed, is a way of saying that the greatest dangers to humanity do not have that symphonic and grandiloquent dimension – the dimension of the phrase “The horror, the horror”, said by Colonel Kurtz, the epitome of evil in the book the heart of darkness, by Joseph Conrad, who inspired the film Apocalypse Now.

Evil, like fungus, virus, and mold, is an ordinary little thing. But it spreads insidiously, and nobody usually notices it in the beginning, when it seems a trifle that is easy to dismiss, trivial, even childish. There is not, and never was, any satanic grandeur in the atrocities perpetrated by Bashar Al Assad, Vladimir Putin, the Taliban, Daesh, or the pro-Russian Wagner mercenary group in Ukraine, but only the vulgar mark of the criminal, the heightened delinquency, by the baton of history, to the capital mission that (with Hitler and Stalin, for example) can excite crowds.

When analyzing Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, for a report by the magazine The New Yorker which earned him the resentment and attacks of the Jewish community (for not having concealed Jewish collaborationism in Judenräte, the Jewish councils), Hannah Arendt concluded that Eichmann, the bureaucrat who organized the trains of death, the accountant of the Final Solution, was nothing more than a banal, vulgar, unintelligent little fellow who was very jealous of his bureaucratic function.

When asked about his crimes, he claimed that he was just “doing his duty”, in the fashion of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. Initially, Arendt was against the death penalty, but after witnessing the sessions he concluded that capital punishment was right, given Eichmann's amorality, which excluded him, on principle, from the human community itself. He was not a psychopath, he was less and worse: an inhuman abomination, therefore deprived of the rights and prerogatives that belonged to men.

Evil, being neither metaphysical nor supernatural, depends for its victory solely on the inattention and negligence of men. Yes, Hannah Arendt warned about its apparently commonplace character and the temptation, in extreme situations, to adhere. We can all become accomplices and executioners, but what is least commented on in the work of the Jewish and German philosopher is that we can also say no.

Reduced to its base and rastaque nature, albeit obscene, evil makes us less afraid, and ceases to subdue us or render us hopelessly impotent. Hannah Arendt suggests that we have the ability to understand the world and the means to act in it. Many of the concepts developed by the philosopher decades ago, in The origins of totalitarianism, emerge in the XNUMXst century as keys to deciphering the chaos of the contemporary world: for example, the concept of “objective enemy”, previously applied to Jews, now to Muslims and soon to another target; or the widespread use of lies as propaganda, which we are tired of seeing; or the atomization of the individual, rather, its dissolution into an amorphous mass. A vita activates, the participation and refoundation of the public space, politics as dialogue, the highest level of the human condition, such values, if they were submitted today to a popular digital poll, would probably be at the bottom, in last place.

“History is a nightmare from which I want to wake up,” James Joyce once wrote. Let's call a poet to contradict him. No, it's not Bertolt Brecht, always summoned when you want to talk about poetry and politics – and irony. Let's call the North American William Carlos Williams, who was also a doctor and must have known firsthand how much life holds tricks and good surprises. The poem goes like this:

“By jumping over the top of the canning cupboard
the cat carefully put
front right paw first
then the back...
inside the empty flower pot.”

The empty vase is waiting. In its paradoxical simplicity (like Buddhist proverbs) this poem can be dedicated to the “White Helmets”, those citizens who engaged in civil defense in Syria against the chemical weapons of Bashar Al Assad and Vladimir Putin and rescuing people from the rubble, or to the improvised Ukrainian fighters, or Afghan women, to everyone, in short, who maintain their humanity (and see that inside the trains of death there are people millimetrically equal to them) and resist.

Evil is banal, seductive, easy, and captures even the reluctant. But it is not inescapable.

Essayist Susan Sontag once wrote, "At the center of our moral lives and our moral imaginations are the great models of resistance, the great stories of those who said no."

This epigraph was chosen by the journalist Eyal Press, collaborator of New York Review of Books, The Nation e The New Yorker, to open your book beautiful souls (let's improvise the translation “Gente cool”), from 2012, in which he researched and described four stories of people who, breaking the rules, were able to raise their voices and say no, refusing to make a pact with iniquities.

One of them is that of the Swiss policeman who, in 1938, on the Austrian border, disobeyed the order to bar the entry of Jewish refugees, and saved dozens of them. Another is that of a well-paid stockbroker who lost her job after refusing to trade a highly toxic product. The third is that of an Israeli military member of an elite group who refused to serve in the occupied territories during the second Intifada.

But perhaps the most impressive of these stories is the one that took place in the city of Vukovar, during the Balkan war, in which a good-natured and simple Serb, using an ingenious device, saved lives. Appointed by the Serbian militias to separate, in different lines, those who were Croatian or Muslim (therefore doomed to execution) from those who were pure Serbian blood, he adulterated the surnames of his neighbors, known and unknown, and with that saved many people from death. When asked by the historian why he had done that, he replied "but I couldn't have done otherwise!". He's not educated or politicized, and he really likes beer and football. He doesn't have a speck of so-called 'heroism'. He just acted, Hannah Arendt would say, like a man who recognized the humanity of the other. Did the saved neighbors thank you? Never. Even at the time of the book, they were hostile to him. But that doesn't matter.

What do such different people have in common? None feared displeasing their peers, none succumbed to peer pressure. Their courage, the author suggests, comes from the simple fact that they have independent spirits, capable of measuring the limit at which the supposed 'duty' (or norm, or tendency) violates the greater law of recognizing the humanity of the other. His actions, unpopular and even dangerous, stem from an impulse of the imagination, that art of putting oneself in the shoes of someone who is different.

In them, empathy predominated, that is, the ability to see oneself mirrored in someone who is not family, nor close, friend, countryman, supporter of the same party or team. Adam Smith, in Theory of Moral Sentiments”, he called this “fellowshipping”, an ability to derive compassion from the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of someone dissimilar. This is for better and worse: empathy is not exclusively pity, but also the ability to rejoice in the happiness of others.

The four characters in the book by Eyal Press are the symmetrical opposite of the Nazi criminal Eichmann, that conventional, methodical, obedient homunculus, who inspired Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil.

In the cases described in the book Beautiful Souls, good has its tricks, and manages to avenge itself against the dominant tendency. An Aryan who saves Jews, an Israeli who refuses to attack unarmed Palestinians, a Serb who protects Croats. The sense of belonging of these discreet heroes is that extended feeling of companionship (which we mentioned in a previous article, about justice as a feeling of loyalty), which extends to embrace everyone and anyone.

Shouldn't we replace the much publicized notion of tolerance – because tolerating is always a condescension, a concession, a favor done to strangers – by the more generous idea of ​​empathy, or a feeling of extended loyalty?

*Marilia Pacheco Fiorillo is a retired professor at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The exiled God: brief history of a heresy (Brazilian Civilization).

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