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July 27, 2012

Discussing the nature of evil


The Nature of Evil was the topic of discussion at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia’s most recent Philosophers’ Café, held on July 18 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, a professor of psychology at Capilano University, introduced and moderated the event, which was attended by approximately 35 people, ranging from octogenarians to students.

Earlier in the day, a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria exploded, killing at least six and wounding 32. Equally poignant and ironic, July 18 marks the 18th anniversary of the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish Community Centre bombing that killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Appropriately, the Philosopher’s Café opened with an acknowledgement of both these evil acts of terror perpetrated against Jewish targets.

Jhangiani, whose research interests include the psychological effects of terrorist attacks and the psychology of genocide, opened the discussion by challenging the audience to think about what the term “evil” meant to them and seeking to define this complex notion. “Evil is ... a difficult concept to define,” he began. “Most often, people define evil by looking at the actions that people perform, so maybe it’s possible to look at certain deeds and say, so that was evil, and define the person committing those actions as evil.... But it’s also possible to define those [people] as evil whose actions may not be evil but the intent was evil. So, perhaps they were unsuccessful but the intent was there.

“If you think about the definition of genocide itself, it focuses on intent to destroy, regardless of success…. Some people will also define evil, I think, by the outcome, so not by what somebody intended to do, not even by what they did, but [that] the effect of what they did ended up having evil consequences,” he added.

Taking the analysis further, Jhangiani said, “Perhaps it’s not something you can actually define. Maybe evil is like coolness. You can’t define coolness but you recognize it when you see it, right? Maybe evil is just something you recognize when you see it but it’s hard to pin down, it’s hard to define because it’s different in different contexts.”

Jhangiani spoke in depth about the concept of “the banality of evil” – a phrase coined by political philosopher Hannah Arendt in the 1960s. Arendt, who is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential political philosophers, conducted several interviews with convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann while she covered his murder trial for The New Yorker. Arendt’s controversial conclusions were published in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  “What [Arendt] was saying,” explained Jhangiani, “was that Eichmann was an uninspired bureaucrat ... he wasn’t a true believer in her eyes, he wasn’t a passionate Nazi in her eyes. The only thing he was particularly passionate about was ambition.

He was ambitious, according to [Arendt], but other than that ... she viewed him as a mere cog in the wheel. Her idea, her argument, is that, if Eichmann, someone who is an uninspired bureaucrat, someone who is not a passionate killer, if he is capable of committing these actions, which might be regarded as evil, then evil itself is banal. Then it doesn’t take something special; then anyone can commit evil, you or I included. The concept itself is a powerful one.”

Jhangiani suggested that by overusing the term “evil” the very meaning of the word is diluted. “Evil is a very complicated concept,” he said. “But I think in overusing it we tend to oversimplify it. We too often use it as this catchall, this category. When we cannot understand how an individual could possibly do something, we refer to them as ‘evil’ and, in doing that, we are excusing ourselves from going through the trouble of actually understanding what led to them doing what they did…. It’s used by those cowering in caves who point at the ‘great Satan,’ it’s also used by those residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue pointing at the Axis of Evil. It’s a very commonly used and overused term.”

Jhangiani invited the audience to ask questions, comment and share their opinions. The relaxed and genial atmosphere allowed for a lively discussion as audience members responded to each other, expanding the discussion’s scope. Topics included morality and ethics, parenting, the nature of democracy, the question of rehabilitation, bullying and group dynamics. Once the formal discussion concluded at 9 p.m., most of the audience remained to continue the conversation informally over refreshments.

Kara Mintzberg, JMABC’s education coordinator, explained the origins of the Philosophers’ Café series, envisioned and created by Dr. Yosef Wosk. “[Dr. Wosk] wanted to create a space and time for people to get together and talk face to face ... not screen to screen, not phone to phone, but face to face,” she said. “He felt there was a huge lack of that opportunity in our everyday life, to talk about things that matter, things that are interesting.... The JMABC adapted it as part of our programming because we really see it as being in synergy with what we do, which is create discussions about history.”

The JMABC’s next Philosophers’ Café, on the topic of Jews and Mental Illness, is Aug. 15, 7 p.m., at the Peretz Centre. The discussion will be led by Rebecca Denham, an outreach worker at Jewish Family Service Agency.

Nicole Nozick is a Vancouver freelance writer and director of the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival.