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The Banality of Evil

The Banality of Evil and Gray Zones: An Analysis of Hero and Villain Models The personifications of good and evil are often the main themes in our generations’ cultural inventions. Movies, for instance, sell through the proliferation of the hero and villain images; the former embodies good while the latter personifies evil. Although we think that such representations are media – generated and are the results of modern ways of thinking; these symbols and images have long existed and have been studied extensively by a notable personality theorist, Carl Jung.

Carl Jung incorporated in his theory the concept of the collective unconscious (Smith, E. , Nolen – Hoeksema, S. , Fredrickson, B. , & Loftus, G. , 2003). The collective unconscious acts as a reservoir for all of our experiences as a species and is typically consisting of archetypes (Carl Jung). Jung spent a great deal of his time trying to find evidences of the collective unconscious’ existence (Smith, et al.

, 2003) and he found that most cultures proliferate it through their myths and other cultural products (Smith, et al. , 2003). Of the archetypes studied by Jung, the hero and shadow archetypes (Carl Jung) appear to pervade much of the current media themes. As a consequence, much of our thinking nowadays is rooted on these primordial images. In social interaction, we tend to classify other people under certain categories and such categories are often mutually exclusive. We believe that people are good or bad, normal or crazy.

This mechanism acts to insulate us: it provides distance for “normal and good” people like us from “crazy and abnormal” people like them (Smith, et al, 2003). Moreover, inexplicably horrifying acts are often rationalized when we relate them to the kind of people who carry them out (Smith, et al. , 2003). The revelation of the events that led and persisted during the Holocaust horrified a lot of people and turned global awareness towards finding explanations about the reasons behind the genocide.

Most of us came to believe that the Nazis were crazy people who murdered millions of innocent lives because they were inherently evil. With this presumption came another one: We think that we will never engage in such acts because we are good people who could and would stand for the principles we believe in. While the Holocaust provided an excellent example as to how labeling and categorizing other people has helped us to deal with the information; our belief in of our personal resilience, on the other hand, became seriously flawed.

The point is clearly manifested by the existence of gray zones. Gray zones arise in environments where there is severe and long-term oppression, where evil and innocence coexist and where one’s responsibilities, moral principles and motivations are lacking or absent. In such situations, individuals are compelled to inflict on others the evils that are threatened to be inflicted upon them.

In an essay written by Claudia Card (Card, 2000), moral ideas and notions are deemed as inadequate guidelines to direct action under such grave conditions (Card, 2000) and the risk of losing their moral convictions in situations as such is of minor consequence to them compared to the risk of losing their lives (Card, 2002). Despite the fact that resistance could be effected, people often succumb and engage in illegal actions because of the duress which they are subjected to (Card, 2000). Along with the idea of the existence of gray zones, the hero and villain models are also challenged by the concept of the banality of evil.

In a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil (Herman), Hannah Arendt contests the fact that men such as Eichmann – Hitler’s chief architect and one of his executioners – engage in inexplicably horrible deeds not only because they have personal predilections to; but also because situations force them to act in such ways. Under such circumstances, an innocuous individual could, in fact, operate unthinkingly and act as though orders are only being obeyed and carried out. The consequences of these actions are not considered and an indifference to the human aspect of the deed is often the result (Linder, 2000).

As in the case of the Holocaust, the Nazis were led to believe that actions such as the annihilation of eleven million Jews and other minorities were no less different than any other assigned responsibilities which they should obey without question (Yar, 2006). Philip Zimbardo, in the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, reported that such phenomenon does exist (The Banality of Evil). In his ingeniously devised experiment, he showed that good people could engage in evil deeds because institutional and social forces are too powerful for these individuals to dispel (The Banality of Evil).

His experiment thus provided a concrete proof to what Arendt referred to as the “banality of evil”. Although it is often practical to engage in stereotyping, it is not always favorable for the people who are being stereotyped. For instance, most of the defendants who have been indicted in the Nuremberg Trials (Linder, 2000) were not inhuman and atrocious individuals. They were, in contrast, individuals who are good fathers, loving husbands and congenial neighbors. Moreover, the changes in their demeanors could not be attributed to personality factors since these changes are too abrupt and too context – dependent.

Social and institutional factors are then thought to provide the greatest influence on the individuals under question. In labeling others then, we need to be more careful in examining the categories to which we assign particular individuals or even groups. While the hero and villain models provide practical templates for classification, situational forces should always be considered. It is possible that in most cases, one finds a perfectly normal person engaging in a questionable deed because the situation demands it.

A complete description, as well as an accurate prediction of the individual’s behavior is therefore farfetched without considering the individual’s environment. Moreover, an understanding of gray zones as well as the banality of evil could turn our attention to the fact that we are not resistant to the influence of both our physical and social environment.


Boeree, G. (2006). Carl Jung, 1875 – 1961. Personality Theories. Retrieved November 14 2007 from http://webspace. html

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