The philosopher Hannah Arendt was one of many—-mostly Jewish—intellectuals, including Albert Einstein—with enough perspective to escape from Germany as Hitler rose to power. Her reflections, years later, on the moral psychology of her countless fellow countrymen who came to embrace fascism are timelessly revealing. And although Hitler was never actually elected, he nonetheless managed to lead a national populist movement that a substantial majority ultimately supported. Arendt argued that these people weren’t evil in the savagely ruthless sense. Indeed, many exhibited certain virtues such as dedication, industriousness, and trustworthiness. She saw their biggest flaws amounting to little more than profound stupidity, which no individual can be held completely responsible for. Nevertheless, she didn’t forgive them their devotion to the regime of the Third Reich, which she considered to be freely-chosen and unmistakably evil nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Arendt doesn’t elaborate very much on what those freely-made choices comprised of exactly. After all, Hitler lost the only election he ran in, and was later appointed Chancellor before instigating martial law. After that, no German was really free to act against the government. But let’s assume that German citizens were still free at least to some limited extent, to participate in fairly innocuous behaviors that most everyone took part in on a routine basis. Many otherwise good citizens took an active part in making the bureaucracy and machinery of doom function as efficiently as possible. They expressed their complicity in myriad ways, either tacitly or more overtly by indulging racist ridicule and cheering on their leader’s hateful speech. Ultimately, the scope of normalized behavior became undeniably evil, enabling the eviction of millions of innocent families from their homes and packing them onto trains like pigs to slaughter. While none of these actions were entirely freely-chosen, it would be absurd to claim—without advocating complete determinism—that none could have chosen to act differently. Many in fact did.
A decade after this horror came to pass, an American scientist and Jew by the name of Stanley Milgram dedicated his career to understanding the psychology that could make seemingly good people behave in irrational and/or brutal ways. He found that time and again, most people will very rapidly and all-too-willingly participate in shocking and unthinkable acts including torturing others to death even when only under the slightest persuasion of a man in a lab coat repeating that the experiment must go on. The videos must be seen to be believed, and similar experiments conducted in laboratories the world over have reached the same disturbing results. Milgram’s sobering conclusion was that as social beings, we interpret the world inside contexts framed by powerful overlapping spheres of social influence. The more spheres are present, the less any individual is likely to act ethically or even rationally when it requires pushing against those forces. Interestingly, he found that some of us do possess the courage and intelligence needed to think for ourselves even under tremendous social pressure. Unfortunately, his findings also indicate that this group tends to be but a small minority. The upshot therefore is that functional democracy must cultivate our capacity for critical thought while protecting us from our herd-like propensity for groupthink.
Given this harsh light of history and social psychology, Arendt and Milgram offer a fitting yet uncompromising account of good and evil. One that rejects the naïvely sentimental assumption that most people are basically good. If this were the case, it’s difficult to explain how the holocaust, mass slavery, or Milgram’s results could have been obtained. Either that, or what it means to be good doesn’t amount to a whole lot, nor does it offer much to aspire to given that it presumes we’re already born that way. So this blanket faith in human goodness must be false. By any conceivable definition, goodness must require exercising at least minimal resistance—at little or no cost to oneself—against the normalization of brutality and hate. At the very least, it must include the critical judgment to see through the con of an imbecilic and barely literate reality-show huckster as he spews bigotry and bile directly from your television. And when you do see it, to do what little you can to keep him from ascending to the most powerful office in the world. It requires only the merest modicum of intellect and fellow feeling.
As Arendt and Milgram recognized during their own era, it was chiefly stupidity for us too that ruled the day on November 8, 2016. For while Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by nearly three million, the overwhelming majority of voters still either chose the bigoted authoritarian buffoon or couldn’t grasp the importance of voting in the first place if only to stop him from becoming president. Though many may not be full-throated bigots themselves, the majority of American adults evidently do not consider that trait a disqualifier for the office of president—or else they would have made sure to vote against it. What’s even more damning is that the Germans actually did vote against it when they had the chance. And unlike us, they didn’t have the hindsight of history to warn them.
What allowed this to happen, as Milgram would surely concur, were overlapping layers of partisan and social media, propagating inflammatory narratives so relentlessly that they eventually became impenetrable to the cleansing light of reason. This has amounted to a kind of collective Orwellian madness, in which people only trust information shared by their peer group. This is how, even today, the president elect can simply assert that US secret service agencies have no reason to claim, as they do, that there was any concerted Russian effort to influence the US presidential elections via computer hacking. As it goes with global warming denial and the doubly false claim that violent crime is increasing as a result of illegal immigration. The leader has only to state an opinion and it is taken as gospel with not even the slightest attempt to test it against any objective standard of validity. Though their emperor is clearly naked, they will not see it. Milgram observed this phenomenon throughout his career in myriad different forms. He found very early on in his research in graduate school that people won’t even trust their own eyes when their peers tell them they are mistaken. After that, he wanted to test this influence at the moral level, which is why he later went on to administer his so-called obedience experiments in which subjects were asked to electroshock others. What he found is that very few of us are able to break free of groupthink when mutually reinforcing layers of social pressure are applied.
But of course the rubes in any of these scenarios are never the only ones at fault. For they are only manipulated to behave in the way that their messaging has conditioned them to. In the case of the election, many simply gave in to party loyalty and/or a blind hatred of Hillary Clinton stoked by an ad-driven fake news propaganda apparatus. Other actors cynically put that system into place. It is a system of deceptive news sites run by expanding networks of ruthless profiteers—including their ad sponsors who choose to look the other way. And it capitalizes on a culture of brainlessness fueled by a consumerist attraction to free, self-affirming and bias-reinforcing media.
The massive and widespread lack of basic moral comprehension that allowed the nightmare now unfolding to happen, boggles the mind. So much so that practically no mainstream pundit saw it coming. This is largely because, as Obama himself expressed, we all believed in the basic moral judgment of the American people. Yet now our faith in each other has been inexorably shattered. For we are being ravaged by a rot at the core of our collective being. One not unlike what must have taken hold in Germany in the late 1930s. For if there was a widespread moral failure of the wider culture during that time, there must surely be something comparably awry in ours right now.
Julian Friedland teaches philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver.
The Banality of American Evil