Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s own need to think. – Adolf Eichmann
I went looking for a quote about the need for thought and the dangers of comfortable life for a blog post inspired by a client conversation. I wanted to write about the challenge of discomfort and learning. I came across this shocking quote and it could not help but throw the issue into a starker relief that I will explore in this post. I will return tomorrow to the business story I wanted to tell but first let’s talk about the threat of thoughtless comfort.
Hannah Arendt in her book and essays ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem‘ gave us a memorable description of Adolf Eichmann’s role to execute the Holocaust during the Third Reich. She described Eichman as an exemplar of
‘the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil’.
The second half of that phrase is commonly quoted. Eichmann tried hard to present himself as following orders at his trial. Arendt focused a great deal on his compliant active participation in the evil of the Nazi system. The impression she created is that a compliant mind is particularly banal, even when engaged in the horrors of genocide.
On the Thoughtlessness and the Banality of Evil
The horrors of the Holocaust were real and clear. Eichmann played a significant role in the Nazi state’s plan for ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’. For some, Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil’ has been controversial. Some commentators see Arendt as having fallen for Eichmann’s efforts to minimise his complicity. Other commentators feel the ‘banality of evil’ phrase downplays the horror experienced by the millions of victims, Eichmann’s own role in perpetrating evil, or distracts from the actions of other evildoers.
However, Roger Berkowitz argued that Arendt was making the point that those who participate willingly like Eichmann in these kinds of evil movements:
‘are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement.’
Whatever, your view of the controversy, we are left with a stark example of the need to discourage ‘thoughtlessly & dutifully’ participating, acquiescence to the comfortable paths of conformism and unwillingness to learn in the face of reality, especially the reality of evil.
This context brings us back to the less often quoted first half of Arendt’s phrase, ‘word-and-thought defying’. A compliant mind brooks no independent thought and no other word. An compliant mind offers no chance for reflection, no time for learning and no chance for a change of course. When we chose to commit ourselves to a group, movement or a larger community at the price of compliance with fixed beliefs, we have become thoughtless.
That thoughtlessness can offer a form of comfort. The hard work of thinking and challenges of solving for reality is taken away. Without the need for any effort to challenge our views or change our actions we are in a perverse, reality-denying and self-denying form of comfort. Our biases are not disrupted. Our actions are secure. We need not engage with the world or learn anything new. Many of the uncomfortable demands of the modern world have been removed.
Worse still, this attitude in a community can be reinforcing. Vaclav Havel noted in his 1990 New Year’s address to the Czechoslovak nation, a nation coming out of totalitarianism, that a compliant mindset had created a ‘contaminated moral environment’ that sustained the previous system:
We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it.
Thankfully today, outside of the remaining totalitarian states on the planet, we do not need grapple with state enforced pressures to conform. We do not the need to sacrifice learning, thought and independent action for the comfort of fixed beliefs.
Yet, we experience smaller moments of thoughtless comfort every day. Our civil society is strained by media bubbles that tell us what we want to hear. Our politics deals less with reality and more with with comfortable messaging to match strongly held ideological positions. Many organisations place enforce the comfort of compliance, beliefs and a tight binding culture for their employees. Our social cliques can involve real peer pressure and shape how we interpret and act in the world. We form habits we repeat long after they remain relevant. Savvy marketers offer us pre-packaged solutions to implement without reflection. In a world of real threats, rapid and daunting change, these forms of comfort can be very appealing.
The real problems and opportunities in our world are not going to be solved by thoughtlessness or belief. Compliance is not a path forward no matter how large the movement or community. Worse still, compliant mindsets and thoughtlessness throws up at us the risk of evil and other dangers that the world faced through the systems of totalitarian states.
Each of us must value the opportunity to think, to learn and to act independently. We are going to have to lead the hard conversations and the difficult collaborative work of learning and change. With that thoughtfulness comes the embrace of an ongoing level of discomfort. That discomfort is not to be avoided, it is the price of learning together engaged in the reality of our shared situation. Discomfort is the price of a civil society that is generating solutions together.