Cliches are rhetorical weapons of mass destruction.
In 1963, Hitler’s second-in-command, Adolph Eichmann, was tried for war crimes in Jerusalem. In attendance at the trial was Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and journalist and also a Jew who managed to escape Europe during Nazi occupation.
Arendt, who is brilliant, unsurprisingly made a lot of brilliant observations. Foremost among them was the degree to which Eichmann’s ability to put six million people to their horrifying deaths depending on his ability to think in any nuanced or creative way about what he was doing. Arendt’s report on the trial gave birth to the phrase “the banality of evil,” which means, quite simply, that the most depraved acts are authorized by the most superficial ways of thinking.
In her words, “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication with him was possible, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Now, obviously, plenty of people go about their days using all manner of cliches and do not turn into Adolph Eichmann. The point isn’t that banality automatically yields evil but rather that evil is not possible without the insulation from critical thought that banality provides.
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