I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.
Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.
Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.
Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”
In discussing misogyny, Manne cites the manifestos of mass murderers who targeted women and perpetrators of sexual violence. In those cases, it was not the dehumanization of women, but rather the idea that women were wronging the perpetrators of violence in some way. That is, the women were blameworthy for some slight, almost exclusively denying sexual or emotional attention to which the perpetrators felt entitled.
So the problem isn’t dehumanization; there are certainly cases where dehumanization allows for the perpetration of serious acts of violence. (This isn’t to say that there are no cases that fit the bill; just that a lot of the cases aren’t getting captured.) The problem is another set of beliefs about the world and how it is acceptable to behave in that world. This seems reasonable enough; a guy who commits violence against a woman who won’t give him the attention he believes he’s due isn’t mistaken about the humanity of the woman, but rather is mistaken about whether he’s entitled to attention.
This seems pretty intuitive, but it actually creates a pretty serious problem for many humanist approaches to understanding moral education and addressing these social problems.
One of the common approaches advocated by humanists is to suggest that if an offending person or group has a better understanding of the lived experience of others, then they will behave better towards that group. If they recognize the humanity and relevant similarities with others, then they see themselves and are less likely to behave badly. Again, this seems pretty intuitive. But the above phenomenon creates a wrinkle.
I’m glossing a little bit here on the issue of what humanism is. Part of the reason is that popular discussions rarely give a version of humanism that is articulated to my satisfaction; my point is to give this as a sort of common point of agreement and emphasis among many humanists.
If a subject know about their own ambition, their own desires for control or disinterest in and malice towards others, and see more of themselves in the group, there can be some projection. If Jones would suppress the rights of other religious groups through shady means, then that means that atheists or gays must want to suppress the rights of his religious group. If Alex knows that he holds disdain for women he finds unattractive or otherwise not a prospective date, then that means those women must hold disdain for him. This sort of projection is where a lot of the danger in these moral motivations live, and in recognizing this psychological phenomenon, it is easy to see how modern political and cultural rhetoric latches onto it.
We can think of this as two phenomena. The first is the humanist inadequacy, that the standard approach of humanizing and regarding as human others outside of our immediate community does not actually get us all the way to the desired ethical position. The second is the humanist puzzle, that there are some circumstances where humanizing others can actually create motivation to behave in ways that are unethical. I have some thoughts on a provisional solution to this, but I want to hold back on that for a bit just to get the problem on the table.