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The Banality of Good and Evil

Reflections of an anti-sociologist

I want to make it simple and to the point. That’s the best way to go. But some days, as I think and write, things become more complicated, and I struggle. Today is such a day. I wanted to write a straightforward post on a straightforward theme, on mistakes and apologies, thinking about mistakes made by public figures and mistakes in the academy. But then fundamental questions about the link between modest mistakes and some of the major challenges of our times presented themselves, and I couldn’t resist; my topic took control of me. I know this is the experience writers of fiction have, when the products of their imagination, their characters and their stories, take on lives of their own. Today, the logic of my reflections on mistakes and apologies led to thoughts on the banality of good and evil. Here a report on my thinking.

We make mistakes, small and large, and we try to make amends. Sometimes, a humble apology or correction is more than enough; sometimes more meaningful action seems to be required. I am thinking about this as the publisher of Public Seminar, and as a sociologist. I am thinking about this as a student of “the social condition.”

Where mistakes end and wrongs begin is unclear. Gestures of disrespect, for example, are sometimes systemic, sometimes individual, and probably most often combinations of both: think of racism, sexism and xenophobia. We worry about these things. We debate them. But also, too often, we ignore them.

Take Donald Trump, who almost never apologizes. Think also about the legacies of slavery in the United States and the legacies of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the way these forms of modern barbarism (Hannah Arendt’s term) have not been confronted by the perpetrators, and those who have benefited from them.

I know that characterizing such evil as mistakes is pushing it. This is what led to my logical leap. Yet, note that radical evil does have a banal dimension, including mistakes of inattention and thoughtlessness, the key insight of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  What we say and do, or don’t say and don’t do, matters. Going along with the order of things, when the order is fundamentally unjust is a mistake with potentially horrific consequences. But as Vaclav Havel highlights in “The Power of the Powerless,” with his tale of the greengrocer, visibly not going along is the basis of significant power. Put up a sign “workers of the world unite,” though you don’t particularly believe it or understand why it should be in a shop window along with the fruits and vegetables, and the regime is legitimated, refuse to do so, and the regime is challenged. Do it alone, as you maintain your integrity, you suffer significant negative consequences. Do it along with others, and the regime is challenged and may collapse, which in fact did happen. There is a kind of banality of good that goes along with the banality of evil.

Havel’s greengrocer and Adolph Eichmann are relatives. There is a dark side of the power of the powerless very much related to the banality of evil. Just go about doing your job, and don’t examine what your job is, and you may become a monster. But be attentive about the tasks you are called upon to do in your daily life, and you may discover that you are much more powerful than you imagine.

Yet, on this fine Friday morning, I didn’t want to focus on such major problems, but about more quotidian ones, worrying about my everyday responsibilities as a publisher and a sociologist.

I am not happy with a post we published. The open letter by a group of college students to Alice Goffman. We made a mistake in editorial judgment. We shouldn’t have posted an anonymous attack, especially one that I think is unsound. For this mistake, I apologize, especially because the critique offered contained a series of dubious assertions. This I tried to confront, perhaps too gently, in my post last week. I was gentle because the letter was submitted by students, but I overlooked the key problem. No one person, or identified group took public responsibility. Was it the unnamed students, or was it their professor? Or is it the publisher? I am especially troubled when a friend and colleague of mine, Iddo Tavory, posted a comment on the piece: a strong defense of Goffman’s ethnography. Since there is no ethnographer working today that I respect more than Tavory, I feel that I have to somehow return to the issue from another angle.

This leads me to the broader issue of miseducation and how my professional expertise contributes to it.

Sociological fundamentalism is a serious mistake. When the insight that knowledge is a product of social circumstance yields reductionism, when knowledge is identified with social circumstance, when text and context are confused, the life of the mind is endangered. Lived social experience in a particular corner of the social landscape provides special insight, and people differently situated do have different insights, but so do outside observers. Ideally, they should enrich each other.

These days I am learning a great deal about the character of masculinity from women, the problems of white supremacy from people of color, and the problems of heterosexuality from those with LGBTQ experiences. But surely, it is a mistake to not recognize that such insights work in multiple directions. It is a mistake to confuse where insights come from, with what they have to offer. A white man can write a brilliant history of civil rights and of Martin Luther King Jr., and some of the best commentary on American pragmatism and the dead white male John Dewey come from people of color.

Further, there is the issue of individual versus collective responsibility. I agree with Andrew Hartman’s suggestion published here for reviving humanities education. Teach students the wonders of the great works of art. Tell the stories of extraordinary thoughts and actions in the past. But I don’t think it is as counterintuitive as he suggests.

Hartman is torn between what he sees as the revolutionary developments in the humanities and the need to engage students.

“[L]iterature education was revolutionized by the death of the author, history education was transformed by the death of the individual, or more to the point, the death of the hero.” But he thinks that “these methods should not be the sole focus of our teaching. If we want students to flock to our humanities classes — if we wish to revive humanities education — we should allow students to revel a bit in the things that inspire them. We should allow them to dream.”

I would suggest that Hartman’s ambivalence about this is the result of a common mistaken sociology. Society and the individual are understood as a kind of nonsensical either/or, resulting in not only the death of the author, but a flight from responsibility.

I sometimes think I am becoming an anti-sociology sociologist. It started when I was an eyewitness to the major transformations from dictatorship to democracy in the last decades of the last century. I was struck by how important the character of specific individuals was to the transformation: Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, et al. There were social forces that explained the collapse of dictatorship and the constitution of democracy, but these forces were created by individuals.

Individuals do matter. They make a difference, as they interact with each other, copy, reject, refine, develop, innovate, (as Gabriel Tarde,Emile Durkheim’s competitor emphasized). Some of them are heroic public figures and some of them are simple greengrocers.

This is where my interest in “the social condition” comes in, developed in collaboration with the aforementioned Iddo Tavory. More on that next week.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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