Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:
The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?
To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies” — a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.
Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”
Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.
These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.
…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”
Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.
Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.
I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.
I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.
I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.
For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.
Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.