Arendt and Milgram

In today’s Opinionator, Roger Berkowitz describes the most common misreading of Eichmann in Jerusalem, which has Arendt attributing Eichmann’s actions to following orders and, by extension, using the phrase “the banality of evil” to mean mindless, order-following bureaucracy.  Berkowitz tells us that this isn’t what Arendt says.  She did not portray Eichmann as a mere “clerk”;  this is not the quality that leads her to speak of his “inability to think.”  Eichmann’s thoughtlessness emerges, on the contrary, from what Berkowitz calls his being a “joiner,” that is, his enthusiastic embrace of an ideology.  And the medium by which his inability to think is sustained is his allegiance to cliches.

Arendt knew well that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi and a creative manager of death.  If Eichmann in Jerusalem makes us look more deeply at ourselves, it is not to ask whether we are all cogs in a bureaucratic machine.  It is rather to ask whether we are all ideologues — an ideologue being, in Berkowitz’s words, “someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the ‘idea’ of the movement that gives life meaning.”  And it is to ask whether we sustain this commitment through a set of commonly accepted and repeated cliches, cliches that ease the realization of the narrative we have bought into and at the same time hide our irresponsibility from ourselves.

I like Berkowitz’s argument, but I’d like to dispute one point.  It’s about Stanley Milgram.

“The widespread misperception,” Berkowitz writes, “that Arendt saw Eichmann as merely following orders emerged largely from a conflation of her conclusions with those of Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist who conducted a series of controversial experiments in the early 1960s. Milgram was inspired by the Eichmann trial to ask test subjects to assist researchers in training students by administering what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to students who answered incorrectly. The test subjects largely did as they were instructed. Milgram invoked Arendt when he concluded that his experiments showed most people would follow orders to do things they thought wrong.”

Do Milgram’s experiments really show only that people will follow orders against their moral sense?  There is more to it than that.  To erect a situation in which his subjects would follow orders he had to invoke their status as joiners, and since he did not have time to train them in an ideology he had to use one that was already in place:  their utopian faith in the benevolence of science.  The subjects would in general not have recognized themselves as ideologues in the church of scientific progress, but they were believers enough:  enough that the laboratory they found themselves in, the lab coats worn by the experimenters, the clinical monotone the experimenters maintained, and the pseudoscientific sound of lines like “there will be no permanent damage to the tissue” — these things, these cliches, signaled to them their already accepted membership in something larger, something hopeful:  the promise of science.  Without the ideology and the cliches, there could have been no Milgram. Milgram and Arendt are showing aspects of the same problem.

Berkowitz tells us that “Arendt rejected… Milgram’s claim that obedience carried with it no responsibility. Instead, Arendt insisted, ‘obedience and support are the same.’”  But Milgram is only claiming that being obedient makes us think we aren’t responsible, not that we should be held less responsible.  And isn’t this also the meaning of the line cited from Arendt?  Obedience and support are the same:  Arendt believes it, and Milgram believes it.  Obedience vs. support is, for both of them, a false opposition:  there is no obedience unless you’ve already invoked an ideology, unless the subject has, as Berkowitz puts it, joined.

So Arendt knows full well that there’s a sense in which Eichmann was indeed only following orders.  Which is not to say the scholars dismissed by Berkowitz aren’t wrong:  they are serious misreaders of Arendt if they think she doesn’t know that Eichmann was a fervent Nazi — really this makes it obvious that they haven’t read Arendt at all.  But the other mistake they make is one that Berkowitz makes too:   to think a clerk is ever merely a clerk.  For when Arendt rejects the obedience/support distinction, she is also rejecting the clerk/perp distinction.  The questions we must ask of our inner-clerk are:  what makes you follow orders?  What makes you ally yourself with those who are giving you orders?  What makes you so involved that you will go beyond those orders into a creative application of the ordering ideology?  The “clerk” is not a cypher;  his autonomy was not taken from him.  The “clerk” has given up his autonomy, given it up to something he believes in.

2 thoughts on “Arendt and Milgram

  1. And I discover this morn that Nussbaum describes Milgram in that tired old way. Hence, this post gives me a greater sense of what’s wrong with Not for Profit.

  2. Except that Eichmann didn’t give up his autonomy. His rise to prominence in the SS was because he showed great initiative– it’s not merely that the perpetrators of the Holocaust followed orders, or that they believed in the ideology– they embraced it on a personal level. Bureaucratic organization certainly played a major role in organizing and documenting the killing, but the actual perpetrators, Eichmann included, personally hunted Jews down, personally, tortured them, and personally murdered them– sometimes showing great initiative in the act, and often getting blood, brains, and bones, on their uniforms.

    These are not the acts of “unthinking clerks.”

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