This analysis deals with the meaning of Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘banality of evil’ developed during the Eichmann trial. It goes beyond the Shoah, in the contemporary political context of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the use of language and notably the fascinating rapidity with which some elements of language and the ‘new code of judgement’ (Arendt 1971, 417) it vehicles, contaminate the whole political discourse.
Arendt was a refugee herself as she was arrested, released before fleeing into exile in the USA where she was naturalized. When recalling her experience, she wrote how ‘we were expelled from Germany because we were Jews. But having hardly crossed the French borderline, we changed into boches’ (2009, 270). The assimilations between Jews/Boches and terrorists/political refugees illustrate the banal way the organization of nation-states creates refugees who ‘are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends’ (2009, 265). The wide repertoire of means is the banality of evil itself and ‘society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon’ (2009, 273). The only positive argument in the banality of evil is that because it is so general a new evaluation is required, especially the refugees’ perception because for Arendt, they ‘represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity’ (2009, 274).
Language is an underlying component of the challenge to preserve one’s identity when away from home. For example, Arendt purposely kept her German accent, refuse to use idiomatic turns and instead spoke as a stranger. In today’s migration issue, the Calais ‘jungle’ school collected migrants’ stories in their own languages, taught children a concordance of alphabets, and helped them cultivate their culture while being taught another.
Arendt’s diagnosis has lost none of its relevance. Apart from all moral considerations helping migrants’ children to preserve their identity is, the only way to give them access to a new culture because, by recognizing them for what they are, they are given no reason to reject it. Arendt reminds that pride is vital to personal integrity, which is similar to what Simone Weil calls ‘honour’ and counts among the ‘vital need of the human soul’ (2003, 18). Although she refers to the colonial empire, Weil’s analysis of conquest and social oppression (2003, 18-19) can without difficulty be transposed to the contemporary world. Nevertheless, the recognition enjoyed by children at Calais’ school does not exist elsewhere and the recent controversies over the teaching of Arabic – a community language – is not only incoherent but also, and above all, a perfect example of Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’.
To conclude, from a moral perspective, this political and social contempt against migrants has inevitable catastrophic consequences. Because ‘we are at war’, any discourse other than martial immediately provokes a flood of ‘clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct’ (Arendt 1971, 418). It seems that the forces which innocently tend to stiffen languages have recently been particularly triumphant regarding forced migration.
Arendt, Hannah. ‘Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture’. Social Research 38 (1971): 417-446.
Arendt, Hannah. The Jewish Writings. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009.
Weil, Simone. The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind. Routledge, 2003.