Existentialist Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. She used it to describe what she felt was the most extreme failures of personal moral awareness – not thinking and not responding adequestly when the times demand it. You know, sitting back and doing nothing even though the world is falling apart. And thinking, “someone else will sort it”. I find myself rephrasing it to: “the evil of banality”.
Arendt argued this flaccid, unengaged thinking was as dangerous as deliberate abuse.
“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence,” she wrote in The Life of the Mind.
Not thinking and resting on laurels and the status quo is fundamentally wrong, she claimed back in Nazi Germany.
Her rally call is becoming just as necessary now, I feel. Goddamn, peace-time affluence and stability makes it a responsibility to be on our toes. Consuming beyond our means is the horrific disaster we ensconce. Greed is the human ugliness we must face. What excuse do we have? We have to go to the mall? We don’t want to carry a Keep Cup? Existentialist angst always surfaces during times of human ugliness.
Arendt adds that it’s a moral imperative to not sink into banality, as righteous as not doing harm.
- Not comprehending what Brexit was about before voting proved irrevocably harmful.
- Not caring where your plastic bag ends up (because you’ve not engaged with the facts) is killing the planet.
- Failing to be bold in love is killing relationships…and making us all bored.
- Drifting, flaking, blaming, avoiding, turning blind eyes, going MIA when you’re needed, scrolling Instagram instead of reading long reads about stuff that counts…it’s making us all lesser.
And we know it. We don’t like it about ourselves, but what to do?
I know some people’s response is that it’s all too much, that they can’t afford the energy to care, to think, to get engaged. I quote New York chef and owner of Prune restaurant Gabrielle Hamilton (a thinker, a doer, a liver) who found herself telling friends who can’t be arsed reducing food waste with some minor lifestyle adjustments:
“It’s hard for me to love somebody with a weak character like that”.
I’ve been wondering lately if I’m reaching the same point. I note that many of you on this blog and on my socials are feeling the same. I’m certainly struggling with flaccid, excuse-making, buck-passing characters at the moment. It’s dead difficult viewing such expressions of anti-humanity with mature, kind eyes. And walking away (turning a blind eye) strikes me as (almost) equally banal and flaccid.
I suppose the “bigger character” option is to just keep on being bold and brave, to surrender preferences (happily; without being a martyr), to post photos of ourselves – unfiltered – hiking instead of buying shit. To strap on our balls and show how it’s done. And to not get wobbled and uncertain when we encounter banality (I often wind up thinking I must be the one who’s wrong given the pushback and rejection I experience when I try the bold route). Like the beast of anxiety, I suppose banality has its purpose, its own evolutionary beauty…even if it’s just to be the Thing In The Mirror that becomes so ugly that we’re forced to change tack.
Feeling the same frustration? Feel free to share your thoughts with me…