Hannah Arendt

On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking

Elizabeth Minnich is a Senior Scholar at the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives.  She has recently released a book The Evil of Banality: On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking (Rowman & Littlefield 2017).   I spoke with Minnich about what it was like to be Hannah Arendt’s Teaching Assistant, whether Arendt’s ideas matter today, and her own thinking about systematic harm-doing and post-truth. 

Elizabeth Minnich
Elizabeth Minnich

Can you tell me about your experience as Hannah Arendt’s teaching assistant at The New School?  What was she like to work with?  

That was, of course, a long time ago, and I was very young, but I do have deeply etched memories. I think that is because in her presence, I was always in high attention mode. She so often said startling things. I loved that. And she was abrupt: few lead-ins or niceties, no padding, so I was, with her, more–I think I’ll say alert as well as attentive.  My memories are also so vivid because I was shaken by her.  Not because she was mean.  Entirely on the contrary.  I felt immediately that this was a deeply caring person, probably also highly vulnerable. No coating: she was entirely present.  I was shaken because I had so little experience of this way of being, right and essential as it suddenly seemed, so what was I to do when she just sort of picked me up and took me with her, early and unwaveringly, as if I were already worthy and knew how to behave.

Hannah Arendt rarely did quite as expected.  When she arrived at the Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research, she refused to admit only the most advanced students to her one seminar.  An interview schedule was posted; she would do her own selecting.  I signed up.  On my assigned day and time, I entered a tiny room, mostly filled by a desk behind which was Arendt, on which was a sizeable (well, memory has it thus) glass box filled with “True” cigarettes, one of which Arendt was smoking.  Anxious as I was, I did manage to enjoy the “True” bit.  We talked; I was terrified enough that I do not remember any of that, but she put me in her seminar.  She gave me an A+ on my first paper, astoundingly, and asked me to be her teaching assistant.  Professor Arendt simply did not care that I had taken one philosophy course in college and one political theory course on the graduate level. She made her own decisions, for her own reasons.  Not infrequently, she brought someone she had encountered to her class.  I don’t remember any of these guests being academics.

Professor Arendt corrected students, and, as I came to know, anyone else who was brash, rude, pompous or otherwise thoughtless, although she didn’t waste much time on it.  She indicated disagreement or lack of interest as needed, then got on with the discussion.  I imagine some people felt that was arrogant, but it was so disinterested (a word whose meaning has almost been lost) that it needn’t have been taken that way, or personally.  It was more as a painter, interrupted for lunch, just startles, shakes her head, goes on working.  I am quite sure Arendt valued politeness, although she was, she once wrote to Karl Jaspers, determined not to be respectable. She was polite unless it distracted from something more important.  She was hospitable that way, too. When she invited me to her apartment, she answered the door without comment, ushered me into her living room, sat me down, set before me various things one might want to eat (coffee, water, nuts, cookies – whatever), and then went straight to what was on her mind.  Once, she explained to me the best way of making coffee.

At the completion of the first class for which I was her teaching assistant for a large lecture course, she told me to grade the exams as I judged right – and then she took off for Europe to visit Karl and Gertrud Jaspers.  It could not possibly have been my knowledge that led her to trust me to do that.  But it is possible that knowing a lot of philosophy, as distinct from having experience philosophizing, could well have gotten in the way of understanding how she was re-thinking it before her very large class as she paced, smoked, and talked.  She really did not “deliver lectures.” You had to let loose and follow along as when a good friend is telling you about an experience she’s had that she needs you to understand.  It was crucial to be open, attentive, actively following a mind moving with the wind of thought: exhilarating, if I’m sure frustrating to those whose minds prefer tracks designed to reach a destination, build an edifice, prove a point.  So, for various reasons, there were people who did not do well on her exam who were used to nothing but As, and people who did very well who hardly dared hope but had listened and then done their own thinking with Arendt in mind.  All I could do was, as she said, exercise my own judgment. She did this to me time and again – sending me down the ski slope with a confidence I assuredly did not share.

Hannah Arendt has been quoted a lot lately, given the political situation in the U.S.  Are her ideas appropriate to understand what’s going on now?  

Arendt’s ideas are illuminating: she finds what is unique within vast historical configurations and dynamics, explores its contexts without reducing them to causes, and so offers a kind of comprehension that suggests further reflection.  For example, she thought about totalitarianism emerging from a very particular history, and so did not overlook aspects of the transition phases, not only in re-locations of power but also in the phenomenon of “self-Nazification.”  I think this is very important indeed.  Among the lines of thought I have extended to other extensive evils in my book: How is it that so many people line up to support an oppressive regime even before it is in position to force them?  There is a crucial moment when people either do or do not join up that is not often enough focused on.  Arendt’s work is full of such illuminations that shed light, without giving answers, beyond their immediate focus.

I would however note that when we take categories, analyses, and generalizations from her as more or other than what she found herself thinking in a highly particular instance–the only kind of instance of which reality is made—we are at risk of mistaking both what she meant then, and what we need to comprehend now.  To put that another way: there is philosophizing going on throughout Arendt’s works.  It is rich, complex, and emerges as coherent in important ways.  It is inspired by her effort–as she put it–to comprehend whatever is going on, and so it does illuminate actual events and people.  Knowing them better, we can understand others better, too (as when we read a great novel).  But we have neither explained nor proved anything: we have ‘only’ been enabled to be more attentive and ready to see what in our turn we might be missing.

Does her philosophy still matter today?   

Well, there is a question before this one, no?  What is “her philosophy”? Ridiculous to respond briefly and informally, but why Arendt still matters entails some such flailing.  Two-part response to your question, then.

Arendt’s philosophy matters because she thought about what had been too often left out, de-valued, denigrated in the human condition as it could, instead, be more fully apprehended. She thought about natality as well as mortality; labor and work as well as the life of the mind; and the reality conferred by appearing. She thought a lot about friendship, and about truth and lies in politics.

Also, she wanted to liberate philosophers from what she called the “deformation professionelle”–the professional deformation, or, the characteristic oddity of philosophers.  She wanted us to be of use in comprehending the world in which we really live and thereby become less politically dangerous as, she observed, most philosophers–with the exception of a few, including Kant–have been.  She was concerned about a lust for what I’ll call clarity and certainty that is at serious odds with a plural, changing, contradictory human world.  Surely, that still matters in many other fields and ideologies as well.

Picture of book Evil of Banality by MinnichCongratulations on your new book, The Evil of Banality!  Can you talk a little about why this title, and your key ideas?  

When I started working with Arendt in 1968, she was still trying to explain what she meant by the sub-title of her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil.  Finally, she gave up, saying there was no point in defending a work that the attackers had rarely even read.  As I write in my book, she took me with her to some of those fierce discussions.  It struck me then that it might help people hear her if she spoke of “the evil of banality,” rather than “the banality of evil.”  She never did, but the reversal stayed with me and I began my research, years ago, into the thinking, and non-thinking, of perpetrators in quest of whether, why, being banal–superficial, clichéd, conventional–makes one more capable of doing horrific harm to other people, if indeed it does. After years of research into genocides but also other horrific systems of harm-doing, it became evident to me that, “People who are not thinking are capable of anything”. And then, of course, I had to make clear to others what that actually meant; why it is the case; and, happily, why it is also the case that there are always some who resist.

You refer to “extensive evil” as the “systematic horrific harm-doing that is carried out, not by psychopaths, but by people like your quiet next door neighbor or your ambitious colleagues.” How does this become possible?

I found myself with a key distinction: there is extensive evil and there is intensive evil. Extensive evil is horrific harm-doing that lasts over time and requires many, many ordinary people doing its daily work to succeed; for example, genocide, slavery, grindingly unjust economic exploitation, apartheid, colonialism. A basic reason we have not adequately comprehended this kind of historical evil so we might do better at stopping it is that we persistently conflate extensive with intensive evil.  Intensive evil is brief, aberrant, requires few people, and shocks people profoundly.  Here’s the difficulty, I think:  the harm done by extensive evil is so profound that it is exceedingly difficult to think of those who do its work as anything other than moral monsters.  How else can we even begin to imagine someone who kills or harms people face-to-face and day after day after day, as the Nazi workers did, as present-day human traffickers do, and makers of child pornography?  How can we imagine an overseer working field hands to death? But in fact, these lasting systems require reliable workers who can do such harm as their job every day, for months, for years.  As a U.S. trainer of torturers said, You don’t want people who enjoy it.  Psychopaths are unreliable and tend to have bizarre other problems.

Still: how does this become possible?  Very simply, I fear: when rewards, from pay to status to a feeling of belonging are given to people who are reliable workers even in a vicious system–think the Plantation system in the U.S. South, or companies selling abroad products banned for safety reasons here–history and our own times tell us that many people will indeed seek those rewards.  They will let their career ambitions, their desire to fit in and be team players, their desire for money and status move them right on into that work.  These are not people who are monsters fired up by hate or fear, or who are merely obedient: they are our ambitious neighbors and perhaps colleagues, perhaps even you and me.

What people who pursue their careers in rotten systems are not doing is thinking about what they are doing in any way that moves outside the encapsulated terms of their job, field, career, profession.  And how often do we practice such thinking even in better times?

Are we–or are we at risk of being–subject to extensive evil now?  

We are always at risk of being subject to extensive evil, of allowing it to happen, and of doing its work.  The crucial thing to realize about extensive, as distinct from intensive, evil is that it is seeded in what it means to be an ordinary human being.  I’m afraid it took me a book to work through what that means, so I have to refer you to that book–but for now, the answer is “yes.”

We are particularly vulnerable right now, though, insofar as significant numbers of people decide to go along, keep their heads down, avoid risks, pursue their own betterment no matter the cost to life, liberty, equality, opportunity for all.  Fortunately, I also found in my exploration of how banality and evil come together that there are always also those who work for extensive good.  One of the things I am hoping for and, I think, seeing now is that the preparation for extensive evil, which has been going on for quite a while (it always has) is over-balanced by preparation for extensive good.  Coming out of decades of social change struggling to keep up with political progress in key areas of equal rights, there are indeed many people for whom quiet retreat, careerism, greed are temptations weak enough to be overcome by a need to keep thinking, speaking, acting publicly and privately–to be attentive, responsive, imaginative in action as a matter of core identity, of integrity.  This, too, is a major concern and conclusion of my book, and I am beyond moved to see so many today being active.  The seeds of good are also always there, and their cultivation by many over decades is now also coming to fruition.

How do we say no to extensive evil?  

I believe we have stopped many extensive evils without even realizing it: we do so whenever we simply say, “No, I can’t do that, and do so in our numbers.  There are examples in my book–and they keep coming.  I read in The New York Times a response to a letter to “the ethicist” in which someone asked if she should report a couple whose marriage, she suspects, is an effort to keep one of the couple from being deported.  Reader response was clear: “Being a good citizen does not require you to be an informer.”  While people keep that kind of clarity, extensive evil cannot find the many, many reliable workers it needs.

History will focus on heroes, organizations, and movements.  That’s what it does.  But the worst things are often stopped before they require struggle, by people refusing to carry out orders, and we rarely hear about that. An example from my book: librarians  under president George W. Bush simply refused to report what people were reading to an over-reaching “security” apparatus.  Similarly, all those people who went to the New York airport to do whatever they could best do to stop the harm of an unjust executive order.  “That’s not who I am” and “That’s not who we are”: resistance is about integrity, the core of identity.  It is grounded in how we lead our lives.

What hope do we have?  

Fortunately, we have in this country many seasoned activists, organizations, strategists, and even more who refuse to stop thinking, speaking, acting, and creating.  There are many who know the history of extensive evils and know that they must be stopped on time.  And we have  new ways of thinking emerging, relatively few people stuck in only one way, one analysis, or one vision.  All this is unusual, and so hopeful; in times of stress and risk, clichés usually spread along with alienation so all relations become more superficial, providing just the kind of soil extensive evil needs.  Hopefully, not this time.

May I also suggest that we should be wary of the repeated calls to stop being “so divisive,” to “restore civility”? When deep differences are out in the open and there are already serious harms being done, civility is really not the primary need, let alone a return to banal politeness.  Great care is needed, but that is entirely different.

What do you think is the most pressing issue that we face today?  

When a regime sets up vulnerable minorities as scapegoats, selects those against whom there is already animus, fans the flames, hires more and special enforcement personnel to do the planned harm so there are more armed, ready, and loyal forces at its command, the issue, shall we say, has become pressing.  Acting on time is crucial: doing harm is en route to being normalized, offering ‘good jobs’ that will, I fear, be done reliably, making “vulnerable” an ever more capacious category.

I also want to say: In the face of the most immediately pressing issues, we ought not overlook the struggle for control of education. As a passionate educator from a former dictatorship said to me, If we cannot change how, even more than what, we teach, we will never be able to become democratic.  Nor will we remain so.

Do you think we’re in a post-truth world?

I actually think that the key issue is one of meaning, as distinct from truth.  We must deal with truth and lies in public life or, ungrounded, we will have nothing but dicta from above, and/or babble.  But we must also talk together about what we mean, about what gives meaning to life, about something more than the first necessary questions that fact-checking can answer.  Maybe this: if we have been “post” something, it may be meaning.  Having only superficial substitutes, some of us may have developed a desire for Colbertian “truthiness”–ungrounded assertions that feel like the certainty, the binding clarity of truth.  And since those have been very much on offer, perhaps too many of us have lost or dulled the ability to discern a meaningful truth from a statement that makes us feel rooted, a statement from someone who acts certain.  I fear that fact-checking, essential as it is, will not then suffice to change minds: it feels cold, a bit mean, and sort of rude.  To re-open space for truth, we probably need some real help speaking with each other about our shared and differing meanings.

I understand you were also at Berkeley for the second wave of the Free Speech Movement – can you talk a little about your experience there, and what your thoughts are on the future of free speech?  

I was there, yes.  I even wrote for “The Berkeley Barb,” went to the “Be-in,” and otherwise explored what was going on, although I admit that alternative consciousness variously induced scared me.  Maybe it’s a philosopher’s thing: that’s my mind you’re messing with.  But you asked more specifically about the free speech and political aspect of those times.  Much to say, but for now just this: I think it is worth remembering that one of the slogans of the Berkeley movement was,

Do not fold, spindle, or bend.

That refers to what is now primitive technology, but never mind: students were objecting to being ever more subjected to being treated as what we would now call “data.”  “Do not fold, spindle, or bend” was what we were not supposed to do with forms required to be filled out so a university could properly “process” us, and we were saying, We should be treated with at least commensurate respect–although “commensurate” wouldn’t do in a slogan, would it?  

John Dewey said that society exists, not through communication, but in and as communication: when speech is flattened into party line–into safe, acceptable slogan, cliché, or jargon–both the unique person and the shareable community within which s/he interweaves a meaningful life suffer, suffocate.

It might also be interesting to remember that among the divisions on campus during the movement, one was between political theorists and behaviorists.  The theorists considered the behaviorists intellectual counterparts of those who thought the way to run a university was as a large, efficient, technologized machine, and the behaviorists thought the theorists unscientific and useless for public policy.  We didn’t even party together.  I took courses with and sometimes encountered the eminent theorists at parties–Sheldon Wolin, John Schaar, Norman Jacobson, Michael Rogin, Hanna Pitkin.  I don’t think I even met a behaviorist.  I think at Berkeley they won, though.

Elizabeth Minnich received her doctorate in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of The New School under the direction of Hannah Arendt. Following twenty-five years as a Core Professor in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the Union Institute, she now divides her time between Charlotte, NC, where she is professor of moral philosophy at Queens University, and Washington, DC, where she is a Senior Scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She is the author of Transforming Knowledge (Temple University Press, 1990, 2005) and co-author with Si Kahn of The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy (Berrett-Koehler, 2005).

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