In the Still between Lightning and Thunder

I am sitting here. Listening to the silence between the thunder and the lightning.  My dogs lay petrified and panting at my feet.  I have just finished turning in my last set of grades.  Teacher’s remorse settles round my shoulders, my heart, my soul.  A pall.  This is my last set of these useless evaluations.  No, wait, they aren’t useless.  They do have a purpose, but not a good one.  Hannah Arendt called this the “banality of evil”. The context for this concept was post war Germany in general and Arendt’s grapplings with Eichmann and the final solution, but hers was not just the idea that “evil had become ordinary”.

As Judith Butler puts it in her Guardian article

At this historical juncture, for Arendt, it became necessary to conceptualise and prepare for crimes against humanity, and this implied an obligation to devise new structures of international law. So if a crime against humanity had become in some sense “banal” it was precisely because it was committed in a daily way, systematically, without being adequately named and opposed. In a sense, by calling a crime against humanity “banal”, she was trying to point to the way in which the crime had become for the criminals accepted, routinised, and implemented without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance.

Your first thought might be denial: you can’t mean that grades are evil banalities?As I slide into my retirement I am more and more convinced that grades are an evil: “committed in a daily way, systematically, without being named or opposed.”  I plan on considering this further.  That I might be as guilty as Eichmann is ridiculous. Isn’t it?  I never did enough to fight the accepted, routinized, and morally repugnant practice of grading while I was a teacher. I did some, but not enough.  Maybe not so ridiculous that teachers who grade commit crimes against humanity?

Arendt argues against what she calls “holes of oblivion” and notes that there will always be someone left alive to remember the Holocaust.

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” … It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Maria Popova offers a master class here on the consideration of evil that should be part of anyone’s education.  I have a project in its infancy called “Minimum Viable University” that will probably be based on humane questions like, “What is evil?” and “Am I committing evil in my world?”  If you are interested, let me know so that we can have a bit of a feldgang, a fieldwalk, together.

I include a poetic remix if that helps.

The Banality of My Evil

Sitting 

at my desk

listening to the silence 

between the thunder

and the lightning,  

my dogs lay petrified and panting at my feet.

I have just finished 

turning in my last set of grades.

Teacher’s remorse settles round my shoulders, 

my heart,

my soul. 

A pall. 

This is my last set of these useless gradations.  

No, wait, they aren’t useless. 

They do have a purpose, 

but not a good one. 

I have committed them

in a daily way, 

systematically, 

without adequately naming and opposing them. 

Like a criminal,

I have  accepted, 

routinized, 

and implemented them

without moral revulsion 

or political indignation 

or resistance.

Arendt said:

This evil is never “radical,” 

only extreme, 

with no depth nor dimension. 

It spreads like a fungus on the surface. 

It defies thought .

It tries to reach some depth, 

but the moment it concerns itself with evil, 

it is frustrated 

because there is nothing. 

That is its “banality.” 

Only the good has depth.

Remixed from 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *