View from
The Left

COVID-19 and the Banality of Evil

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Compulsory obedience can especially be seen in how the Democratic Party has changed since the election of President Biden in 2020. Before he entered office, COVID-19 was more accepted as an important and legitimate issue.”

It is time to call it what it is: the banality of evil. 

I am talking about how the layers of government in the United States and elsewhere are (not) responding to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis that continues to kill and disable and reinfect en masseCOVID-19 is worse in some cases than an “airborne AIDS.” Available therapies are often (but not always) diminishing, and immune systems are suffering. 

COVID-19 is known to attack T cells and to damage greatly the brain, the heart, the nose, the liver, and the lungs. It can cause blood clots and strokes. It vastly accelerates aging. It harms fertility. It causes psychological distress. Its consequences on the body are being further documented and discovered daily. I and others have predicted that COVID-19 will decimate populations and possibly be an extinction-like event, especially given that basically all children have been infected. 

The “banality of evil” phraseology is appropriate because evil (and “evil” is certainly a very strong word) is happening vis-à-vis the impersonal, indirect, codified, and orderly nature of bureaucracies. 

President Joe Biden is not walking up to people and killing them with a gun, but his actions–rather inactions and lies–are very much killing people and are perpetuating death and disability.  

I have searched for another word to describe our current historical moment where everyday people across the nation increasingly engage in denial behaviors. If a person does not wear a mask, for example, that person is engaged in a behavior of denial. 

As has happened before, I have not found an adequate word. Working from existing concepts, namely compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness, I have come up with the concept of “compulsory obedience.” 

Due to ancient mores, such as those immortalized in the Christian Ten Commandments; due to the power of the State and civil religion; due to deeply rooted traditions of respect and following authority figures, be they parents or teachers or religious leaders; and due to the psychological forces where people crave belongingness, obedience is compulsory, and obedience is deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA. 

When it comes to COVID-19, compulsory obedience means rejecting anything that serves as a reminder about COVID-19 (for over a year the mainstream, corporate media has had a near-complete blackout on coverage) because the illusion of normalcy is important, an illusion that temporarily preserves economic, political, and social orders. 

Compulsory obedience can especially be seen in how the Democratic Party has changed since the election of President Biden in 2020. Before he entered office, COVID-19 was more accepted as an important and legitimate issue. Democrats largely wore masks and took at least some precautions. Then things suddenly changed, and they changed without any pushback or questioning. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again: If former President Donald Trump were still in office, COVID-19 would be receiving much more attention, and the situation with COVID-19 would be somewhat better. Others have said it, too. (And, of course, President Trump belongs in prison for his illegal acts of  collusion and corruption.)  

In the case of COVID-19, and in parallel to compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness, compulsory obedience is privileged and rewarded by society and is seen as the normal, rational way of existing and responding to society. Further, compulsory obedience is not even seen by most because said obedience is so automatic and natural(ized). People who do not obey are seen as disrupters, are misunderstood, are rejected by friends, and are isolated. Compulsory obedience rewards not thinking. 

We can also think about the performativity of obedience, performativity describing words or actions that are recognized and ritualized, that have authority, that have a history/are repeated, and that enact meaning. Not wearing a mask, for example, does not just covey alignment with compulsory obedience; it creates a(n imagined) reality of hypernormativity, where COVID-19 is not a concern—all in the name of a cripnationalism.

Not wearing a mask is a performative action that actively creates situations where it is only more unsafe for disabled people (especially for those lacking cripnormativity) and those actively avoiding a new and dangerous disease to do anything. 

Not wearing a mask is also performative in the same way wearing a dress or having a beard is performative—people typically do not “see” what they are wearing and do not “see” the meanings being created and perpetuated. 

Not wearing a mask performatively enacts and perpetuates meaning, deadly meaning where COVID-19 need not cause concern and where disabled people are discarded, deadly meaning that is the banality of evil.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda holds a doctorate and two master of arts degrees, teaches at the University of Houston, and often writes and teaches about disability.

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