The Banality of Evil in Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave”

The connections between Alex Tizon’s 2017 revealing personal article for the Atlantic about his family’s involvement in enslaving Eudocia Tomas Pulido and Hannah Arendt’s 1963 controversial reporting for the New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem are not immediately or obviously apparent. And to be clear, they certainly do not take on the same form or focus on individuals of equal consequence. However, they do mirror each other in both the meaning we can learn from them and the reactions they have garnered from readers.

What do we take away from both Tizon and Arendt’s pieces, which are separated by more than a half century in time? Tizon, reflecting on himself and his own family, and Arendt, reporting on Adolf Eichmann (a man who orchestrated the transportation of millions of Jews toward the Reich’s Final Solution, which would have certainly resulted in Arendt’s own death had she not escaped Europe and the Holocaust’s reach), both create relatable (and I use this term loosely but deliberately) characters of the criminals at the center of their stories. Many readers are criticizing The Atlantic for publishing an article that seeks to humanize the Tizon family, the oppressors in this particular story, but I believe there is great value in pursuing this challenging and complicated undertaking. If readers are able to see any semblance of a reflection of themselves in the portrayals of Eichmann or the Tizon family, they are pressured to question their own culpability within systems of severe injustice.

It is important, and what I feel Tizon’s writing succeeds at communicating, to understand that the most unethical and immoral actions done in this world are not acted out by monsters, but by, in Arendt’s words, “terribly and terrifyingly normal” people. Arendt’s analysis of the “banality of evil” is a much harder idea to accept, of course, as it involves including ourselves in the narrative, decreasing any sort of comfortable distance we may feel from evil. Audiences responded to Arendt’s reports with revolt, reacting to what they felt was an attempt at excusing Eichmann of his crimes and relieving him of his responsibility. This is what some may feel Tizon is doing for his own family. In 1963, unsurprisingly and understandably, Jewish readers were among the most outraged at Arendt’s propositions. Now, in 2017, it is also unsurprising and understandable that African American readers are among the most vocal critics of Tizon’s article. Those that have been historically traumatized by genocide and slavery, respectively, are therefore most outraged and quickest to cast doubt upon the writers’ commitment to holding perpetrators of violence accountable.

However, it is my belief that both Arendt and Tizon were not attempting to excuse Eichmann and the Tizon family, respectively, but were instead presenting the argument that the evil that these people were able to act out is a symptom of the failure of greater humanity, and not the responsibility of a few intrinsically evil individuals. While both pieces focus in on individual stories and psyches, what’s more important is what this micro perspective can teach us about humanity as a whole. Arendt and Tizon’s true accomplishment lies in their ability to open up the conversation about the banality of evil that exists within ourselves.