Quiet civility

Today David Eaves is writing about an experience he had in a meeting recently:

The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.
He notes how quickly dialogue can change in a group setting:
Of course, once a group appears to have consensus - because alternative perspectives have censored themselves - it doesn't take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places.
At a certain point, it becomes too late to question or raise concerns about the underpinnings that have led to the consensus.  Here we are, let's keep going.

I wasn't at the meeting, don't know the players, and to be honest, don't care about the content.  However, his description of the mechanics of such group/mob behaviour interests me.  Tonight it forced me to go back and reread a section from Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Let me read it to you, before I say more:

...the meeting had become necessary because the Final Solution, if it was to be applied to the whole of Europe, clearly required more than tacit acceptance from the Reich's State apparatus; it needed the active cooperation of all Ministries and of the whole Civil Service.  The Ministries themselves, nine years after Hitler's rise to power, were all Party members of long standing--those who in the initial stages of the regime had merely "coordinated" themselves, smoothly enough, had been replaced.  Yet most of them were not completely trusted, since few among them owed their careers entirely to the Nazis, as did Heydrich or Himmler; and those who did, like Joachim von Ribbentrop, head of the Foreign Office, a former champagne salesman, were likely to be nonentities. The problem was much more acute, however, with respect to the higher career men in the Civil Service, directly under the Ministers, for these men, the backbone of every government administration, were not easily replaceable, and Hitler had tolerated them, just as Adenaur was to tolerate them, unless they were compromised beyond salvation.  Hence the undersecretaries and the legal and other experts in various Ministries were frequently not even Party members, and Heydrich's apprehensions about whether he would be able to enlist the active help of these people in mass murder were quite comprehensible.  As Eichman put it, Heydrich "expected the greatest difficulties."
And the next sentence leads us straight into the horrible heart of evil, exposing how it works in intricate detail, namely, with great civility and quiet, implied consensus:
Well, he could not have been more wrong.  The aim of the conference was to coordinate all efforts toward the implementation of the Final Solution  The discussion turned first on "complicated legal questions," such as the treatment of half- and quarter-Jews--should they be killed or only sterilized?  This was followed by a frank discussion of the "various types of possible solutions to the problem," which meant the various methods of killing, and here, too, there was more than "happy agreement on the part of the participants"; the Final Solution was greeted with "extraordinary enthusiasm" by all present...The main point, as Eichmann rightly noted, was that the members of the various branches of the Civil Service did not merely express opinions but made concrete propositions.  The meeting lasted no more than an hour or an hour and a half, after which drinks were served and everybody had lunch--"a cozy little social gathering," designed to strengthen the necessary personal contacts...

There was another reason that made the day of this conference unforgettable for Eichmann.  Although he had been doing his best right along to help with the Final Solution, he had still harbored some doubts about "such a bloody solution through violence," and these doubts had now been dispelled.  "Here now, during this conference, the most prominent people had spoken, the Popes of the Third Reich."  Now he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears that not only Hitler, not only Heydrich or the "sphinx" Muller, not just the S.S. or the Party, but the elite of the good old Civil Service were vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters.
Here, in the next sentence, she exposes how silence and civility allowed such things to happen at all for Eichmann, and the others present:
"At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt."  Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"?  Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty...

As Eichmann told it, the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.
The silence, in the end, is deafening.  We so easily forget that evil, when it even bothers to wear a mask and try to disguise itself, always wears one with a closed, smiling mouth.  Evil is never a thing, but the absence of a thing, the absence of what should have been done, what should have been said.

Agreement in a group setting is truly a wonderful thing.  But we should be wary of agreement that comes without any work, any disagreement, and disruption.  We must never mistake quiet civility for passionate agreement.

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