How a good person turns evil

The way a good person can turn evil has been demonstrated by one of the best known experiments in social psychology ever conducted: all Philip Zimbardo had to do was assign to a random sample of individuals the role of prison wardens, and within a few days they had begun to humiliate and abuse other individuals, also chosen at random, who were assigned the role of prisoners. The treatment meted out by the wardens turned increasingly more brutal simply because the rules of the experiment allowed it.

History, particularly modern history, is full of examples of how easily this kind of transformation can occur. It is frighteningly simple. When the foundations of society start to shake, a virus seems to get hold of  every member of society, ridding people of their inhibitions to inflict pain on those they have been allowed to hurt.

In 1963 Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her book examined the testimony of Hitler‘s bureaucrat who ran the Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz. Being interested in the mechanism that turned him into a monster, Arendt didn’t ignore the excuse he kept repeated during interrogations: “I was only following orders”. A thorough examination of his reasons made her reach the famous conclusion that rather than being monstrous, such total, immense evil was simply banal. At the time of publication her conclusion shocked and outraged many readers but it may have left a lasting mark on us precisely because it has defined a new stereotype of evil: the obedient evil carried out by a meticulous, systematic bureaucrat, a cog in an enormous machine. The time has come to remind ourselves that Hannah Arendt‘s diagnosis of the banality of evil is even more profound than this, for it applies not only to totalitarian regimes but rather is universal, encompassing the type of evil we have seen spread in recent years.  it is this that we wish to discuss in Bratislava at Central European Forum 2017.

For Adolf Eichmann’s banal evil consisted not in his bureaucratic obedience: beneath it there was something more powerful that enabled him to follow the order to commit mass murder and ensure it was smoothly carried out. That something was the unthinking and unfeeling principle that Hannah Arendt identified as the incapacity for, or impossibility of, a profound internal conversation with oneself.

At this moment, too, we are living at a time of enormous upheavals. The present-day upheavals, just like those of the twentieth century, are related to the great loss of certainty brought about by the triumph of globalisation. Over the past months and years public discourse has shed all its inhibitions, with politicians and aspiring politicians teaching us to see other groups of people as a mass, a burden, a potential threat, thereby preparing us and themselves, consciously or unconsciously, to stop seeing them as human beings.

At a time when, in theory, every voice can reach us, a time of total information connectivity, we have found ourselves in a situation where our conversation with ourselves – the essential prerequisite of the individual’s sense of responsibility for their actions – is being suppressed instead of being encouraged. The mere fact that we now spend most of our time networking means we are never, not for a moment, left alone by technologies. This is exacerbated by the way social media operate. Search engines and social media use algorithms to reinforce the views we want them to reinforce. And they are most effective at connecting those with a grievance, those with a sense of outrage, anger and fury , spreading it further and further, the way a virus spreads through the plumbing.  Aggression is the most powerful of all clickbaits, it is the strongest motivator, whether it is based on real or fake information. This is the basic business model of today’s internet. Everyone can see it but the system of which we are a part has taken on a life of its own. How this could have happened and what are the chances that it can be changed is what we will discuss at Central European Forum 2017.

In recent months and years Central Europe has become the neuralgic point that may determine the future of the entire European project. What is at stake in small countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic is not just their own fate. Society as a whole can lose its mind and identify with unthinking evil. But we know that this process is not irreversible. After all, nearly all of twentieth century Europe turned into this kind of hell. Nations were infected with the banality of evil without the aid of the internet.

The French philosopher Bruno Latour says that it’s high time for Europe to “come back to earth”. “Even though we are aware of the various threats this may entail, our continent will have to accept in our midst millions of people who have been driven by wars and the failures of globalisation and climate change  to seek out a country where they and their children will be able to live (just like us, in opposition to us or together with us).” But how can we who are at home here, cope? How can the new arrivals cope? What are the strategies to counter this general sense of lost certainty? Mechanisms and concepts that worked in the past are no longer effective: they are running on empty. What do we need to do to ensure that people don’t end up at the mercy of unthinking evil? What can we do to not surrender to it ourselves?

This is what we wish to discuss with the most outstanding European and world authors in Bratislava at Central European Forum 2017.