After finding his picture on the internet, I carefully looked at his face. This is a generic Western face: slender, slightly aquiline nose, small but deep-set eyes, square, chiselled chin, and thin lips. The face is wearing a smile, an apparent indication of goodwill. There’s people like him everywhere on the streets of Europe and America. But this is not an ordinary person: his name is Adolf Eichman, and he was involved in the Holocaust as a high-ranking nazi official. The scholar Hannah Arendt wrote a book based on the materials from his trial: Eichman in Jerusalem, but the subtitle of the book is more widely known: “A report on the banality of evil”.
“Evil mediocrity”. Through this expression, Hannah Arendt is trying to express the following: Eichman – and probably the vast majority of the nazis – was no devil or monster; based on psychiatric analysis of his confessions, he was a completely ordinary man, you could almost say a “scarily normal” man. But it’s specifically people like that who, in exceptional times, can become indifferent to the massacre of thousands of other people.
Why is that? “It’s through pure lack of thoughtfulness that he became the biggest criminal of his time”, wrote Arendt. By “lack of thoughtfulness” she means that, when he received an order from his superiors to proceed with a convoy, he just followed it to the letter and executed it. And when one day he was trialed for criminal responsibility, this subordinate said: I was just following orders. “I was just following orders”, what a reasonable explanation, almost a proof of professionalism.
Recently, I’ve been meditating on the expression “evil mediocrity”. The reason is the recent Chen Guangcheng incident in Linyi: a human rights activist, blind from birth, and living in a place called “East Stone village”, was kept under house-arrest, and was neither allowed to go out, nor receive anyone – whenever someone tried to get into his house, they would be violently taken away, so that people re-named the place “mystery town”, and it became one of China’s famous “adventure destinations”.
In this affair, what I find most curious is not the precautions taken by the local government, but the low-ranking public servants and hired vigils that keep guard on Chen Guangchen and chase out visitors – people say there’s dozens of them, even a hundred. These people stand guard day and night in “East Stone village”, and submit “adventurers” to a treatment that goes from the simple expulsion to heavy assault. What I’m curious about is, what power motivates these”very ordinary people” to keep guard so tenaciously? If it’s only money, what convinced them that this guard money is more important than the rights of a blind man, and do they have no other way of making money that would give them more peace of mind?
I believe that they are “very ordinary people”, just like in the Shanxi black kiln incident, those people who passed in front of the kiln everyday but never thought of reporting what they saw were “very ordinary people”; in the movie Blind mountain, the villagers guarding the girls abducted and trafficked are “very ordinary people”; and in the case of the three Fujian netizens arrested for slander, the judges who condemned them for their words were “very ordinary people”… I can imagine that these people love to play Mahjong, watch “My Fair Princess” on TV, sing Karaoke, and if you asked them for directions on the street, they would probably very warmly show you the way.
There’s a Western proverb that says: no drop of rain has ever caused a flood. When a chain of evil is long enough, the people making the links in the chain do not see the whole picture, and everyone in the chain has reasons to feel innocent. A was just an ordinary person, but also the clerk who kept the Jews’ racial register. B was ordered to escort the Jews from their home to the quarantine officer. C was part of the crew that put the Jews on trains. D was in charge of keeping law and order inside the camps. E was responsible for clearing up the corpses…. What would make them responsible for the death of these people? They were nothing but a tiny screw inside a huge machine. But should Hitler bear all responsibility? With 6 million dead, at the rate of one person a day, he would have had to kill for over 10,000 years.
The psychologist Zimbardo, from Stanford University, conducted an experiment that became famous as “the Stamford prison experiment”. 24 students were randomly allocated roles by drawing lots: half of them became “jailers”, half of them became “prisoners”. The result was that, over a week of role playing, the students playing the jailers became increasingly cruel, while the students playing the prisoners became increasingly fearful. It’s enough to make you shudder that a situation of role-playing like this one, conducted in an experimental environment for just a week, was enough to change people’s characters : and in reality, how many people are caught in all sorts of institutionalized roles for months or years, and who knows where the process of continuously playing those roles has taken their humanity?
Playing a role absolves you from evil. The convenient thing is that, by playing a role, “I” am no longer an I, but only a “he”: Officer Zhang, Section Chief Liu, Judge Chen, Director Li… and if those who stand at the entrance of East Stone village are anonymous and small, even better, because their anonymity means that they are exempt from any liability. “I” am no longer “I”, “I” am just one among the many tentacles of the huge monster, and so “I” can be taken over by evil. Our so-called human nature only reawakens when it extricates itself from the alienation of the collective, returns to its own independence, intregity, and personal responsibility, when it climbs out of the system’s deep well, and sees under a wider sky how the raindrops have merged into a flood.
Today, there are still countless “thoughtless” sleepwalkers, hypnotised by the system. But is there any such thing as an abstract system? Whether you’re A, B, C, D, or E, you are the system, and without you, the system is just a piece of punctured paper. Eckart Löwe, the German teacher who’s been educating China’s villages for so long, once put it very clearly by saying: “Civilisation is stopping and thinking”. Whether to “stop and think”, or continue to work as a “thoughtless” part in the system’s machinery, for every very ordinary person, that’s the alternative.