The banality of evil thesis shocks us by claiming that decent people can be transformed into oppressors as a result of their “natural” conformity to the roles and rules handed down by authorities. More particularly, the inclination to conform is thought to suppress oppressors’ ability to engage intellectually with the fact that what they are doing is wrong.
Although it remains highly influential, this thesis loses credibility under close empirical scrutiny. On the one hand, it ignores copious evidence of resistance even in studies held up as demonstrating that conformity is inevitable. On the other hand, it ignores the evidence that those who do heed authority in doing evil do so knowingly not blindly, actively not passively, creatively not automatically. They do so out of belief not by nature, out of choice not by necessity. In short, they should be seen—and judged—as engaged followers not as blind conformists.
What was truly frightening about Eichmann was not that he was unaware of what he was doing, but rather that he knew what he was doing and believed it to be right. Indeed, his one regret, expressed prior to his trial, was that he had not killed more Jews. Equally, what is shocking about Milgram’s experiments is that rather than being distressed by their actions, participants could be led to construe them as “service” in the cause of “goodness.”
To understand tyranny, then, we need to transcend the prevailing orthodoxy that this derives from something for which humans have a natural inclination—a “Lucifer effect” to which they succumb thoughtlessly and helplessly (and for which, therefore, they cannot be held accountable). Instead, we need to understand two sets of inter-related processes: those by which authorities advocate oppression of others and those that lead followers to identify with these authorities.
From: “Contesting the “Nature” Of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show”, S. Alexander Haslam mail, Stephen. D. Reicher, November 20, 2012DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001426