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Critical Thinking in the Face of the Culture of Banality

Leandro Sequeiros, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Feb 9th 2023

Critical Thinking in the Face of the Culture of Banality




The Lovers, Renee Magritte, 1928


Throwaway: the society of the banal

Sociologists argue that we have built, and are still building, an increasingly banal society, marked by emptiness and escapism. It may have always been this way, but previously people tried to hide this behavior, which was considered negative, while today we accept banality without the slightest embarrassment.

It is a banality that affects many aspects of life and has crept into how we live. On the other hand, it probably is not as negative as  we are, a priori tempted to consider it, because being banal is, all things considered, one among many options in human existence. The fact remains that, in general, there is an increase in banal activities among the new generations of Western peoples. To see this, one only has to look at how they receive information: always in excess, and yet insubstantial. They process vast amounts of information through easily assimilated media: via audio or on screen, through short messages that require almost no intellectual effort, or through social networks. The emerging generations largely ignore the written word and, in particular, long opinion articles; they are content, at best, to glance at the headlines. Fortunately, there are a few honorable exceptions.

This banality is epitomized in the “disposable,” what can be “thrown away,” so prevalent in  current society. We wear disposable clothes, eat disposable food – instant and superabundant, the waste of which will end up in the trash – and even disposable partners: the old custom of couples whose relationship tended to be stable has given way to the multiplication of serial marriages, of limited  duration, involving little commitment.


Those who turn a critical eye to our society’s set of values are struck by the fact that social networks construct life as a succession of almost irrelevant trivialities and contain a good deal of impermanence: an Ikea thought that, by extension, molds an Ikea generation of all those who are infected by that ideological current. This image, drawn from the world of furniture, portrays the preference the current generation shows for what is immediate, with no vision of the future or what claims to be definitive. Undoubtedly contributing to this attitude is the impermanence of much of the employment of the working class, with limited wages, which does not allow for stable, long-term plans for the future. All of this continues to be an insufficient reason to embrace the generalized banality in which society is immersed.

We point out that when we speak of banality, we do not mean to give the term a negative connotation, but rather want to use it as a statement about reality to which, admittedly, we add surprise in the face of attitudes, especially intellectual ones, which are changing and that the traditional value of effort and thorough training is giving way to levity and superficiality.

Zygmunt Bauman and the moral blindness of culture

When talking about “banality,” sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is an obligatory reference. Polish-born, he died in England on January 9, 2017. The sociological category that made him famous is that of “liquid modernity,” an image of change and transience, deregulation and liberalization of markets. The liquidity metaphor proposed by Bauman also seeks to represent the precariousness of human bonds in an individualistic and privatized society, marked by the transitory and volatile nature of its relationships and uncertain ethical principles. Love becomes floating, without responsibility to the other, and is reduced to the impersonal bond offered by virtual reality. We “surf” on the waves of a liquid society, which can “liquefy” even religions.

Commentators note that liquid modernity is a time when people, at the time of the Enlightenment, had fought for civil liberties and, abandoning tradition, claimed to have discovered the absence of certainty. Humanity is now faced with the obligation to be free, taking on the existential fears and anxieties that follow from that freedom.  The immediate solution to survive in these circumstances is to drown oneself in an ocean of banality. This is how the gloomy landscape described to us by Bauman appears.

Prominent among his last essays is Moral Blindness,[1] in which the sociologist returns to reiterate the extreme consequences to which liquid modernity can lead: the loss of a moral compass and the absence of ethical principles that are valid always and everywhere and capable of giving some firm foundations to  Western society.

In this context, what place can religious experience occupy? If religions normally offer strength and security, what can we expect from them in the age of liquid modernity? Does Bauman open up any possibilities? Can we see any glimmer of a return of religious values – as José María Mardones noted many years ago[2] – in a world eager for certainty?

The pessimistic traits of Western society according to Bauman

Bauman’s death has rekindled interest in his ideas. In an essay, psychologist Mónica Redondo presents five of the Polish sociologist’s ideas as keys to interpreting our current world.[3] Bauman’s “liquid modernity” has demolished  bridges with the established structures of the past. In recent years, the philosophy of life, values and what is considered ethical have changed radically due to the political and social upheavals of the second half of the 20th century.

In Liquid Modernity,[4] Bauman attempts to explain the social phenomena of the modern era and what differences distinguish us from past generations. After the book was published in 2000, the Polish sociologist wrote a series of works illustrating his view of the society around us: Liquid Love (2003), Liquid Life (2005) and Liquid Times: Living in an age of uncertainty (2007). Here are what appear to be the most significant points in his writings:

1) Liquid reality consists of a break from established institutions and structures. In the past, life was arranged specifically for each person, who had to follow established patterns in order to make decisions in his or her life. Bauman states that in modern times, people have managed to break free from patterns and structures, and each person works out for him- or herself the pattern to adhere to for life choices.

2) According to Bauman, in liquid life, society is based on individualism and has turned into a precarious and unstable reality where there is no place for certainty. Everything we have, when compared with the fixed structures of the past, is changeable, or has an expiry date. Many of the things Bauman anticipated in Liquid Modernity and subsequent works have come true. He has been able to explain the workings of today’s society and determine the relationship of new generations to concepts such as love, work and education.

3) Liquid love is to be found in the era of the Tinder social network. The relationships that our grandparents had have little to do with ours. Fear of commitment, one-night stands, broken hearts and so on: for many young people all of these can be their definitive experience. For Bauman, these are the relationships that give his concept of “liquid love” its name. In his view, the fear of commitment and of having to give up such things as freedom is the main reason for the  renunciation of attachment to a particular person. Liquid life is a succession of new beginnings with limited and painless terms. Love relationships end up turning into short episodes, hinging first and foremost on the pursuit of personal benefit. When one partner ceases to be “profitable,” one sets him or her aside and looks for another. This is neither more nor less than the philosophy of Tinder. It is true that stories of eternal love have also sprung from that dating app, but most users scroll through rows of faces on the screen until they find the one  which most appeals as someone with whom to  spend the night.

4) Citizens of the world. If there is anything we do not want, it is ties, and this applies to lifestyle no less than to love. In the modern era it is quite common for young people to embark on a journey of several months to Latin America or Southeast Asia for the purpose of breaking barriers and learning about realities other than those of their place of origin. Bauman’s “liquid reality” describes this scenario, which values change and the search for new experiences, but without ever putting down roots anywhere. One is a citizen of the world, but at the same time a citizen of nowhere.

5) No more work that lasts a lifetime! In the “liquid society,” this philosophy, based on the search for new experiences and aimed at making us citizens of the world is also reflected in the field of work. Our grandparents and parents started working for a company as soon as they graduated from college, and retired from the same place decades later. Today, on the other hand, people, Bauman explains, do not want ties either in love or at work. There is no longer the so-called “job for life.” Jobs are changeable, and today’s market demands that there is constant transformation within companies. On the other hand, in his writing Bauman highlights the need for change in workers, who are increasingly being obliged to exhibit versatility and the ability to work in different areas every day.

Hannah Arendt, on the banality of evil

There is in our society another aspect of “ethical banality,” which Bauman hinted at, that had already been extensively explained by the Jewish writer  Hannah Arendt. It was Arendt who proposed the concept of the “banality of evil” – born in 1906 in Germany, died in 1975 in New York –  she “was one of the most important German political theorists (on the philosophical side) of the 20th century. A victim of Nazi anti-Semitism in 1933, she spent part of her life as a stateless person, from 1937 to 1951, after the German government took away her citizen-status (which the United States would later offer her).”[5]

Although she is studied as a political philosopher, Arendt did not like to be categorized as such. She liked to call herself a “political theorist,” but works such as The Human Condition[6] and her constant critique of other thinkers justify her being regarded as  a philosopher. Her best known work is Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.[7] At the end of World War II, Adolf Eichmann – the official responsible for the organization and distribution of the concentration camps – fled to Argentina to escape trial. In 1961, in defiance of international law, he was seized and taken to Jerusalem to stand trial. The New Yorker asked Arendt to report on the trial. As a result of that request she wrote The Banality of Evil, in which she not only minutely described the course of the trial proceedings, but also asked an essential question: why, despite the fact that he had allowed and contributed to what were undoubtedly horrors, did Eichmann not appear to be an evil individual?

Arendt saw Eichmann as a completely normal person: he was aware of what he had done, he never denied it, and yet he did not see anything inherently bad in the acts he had performed. “I was carrying out state orders,” claimed the German official, who described himself as a “good citizen” who carried out his orders. From here Arendt defines the “banality of evil.” First, the banality, because of its mediocrity, does not prompt her to dwell on the fact that evil is “horrible,” but on why Eichmann allows it to happen or contributes to it.

For Arendt, the very fact that the accused does not base his actions on strong ideological or moral convictions turns out to be even more terrible than the acts themselves. Why does a normal person, who is not evil or even has no goals other than to carry out orders, get involved in a terrible atrocity? Out of incapacity for judgment. Arendt distinguishes between knowledge and thought: the former involves the accumulation of knowledge and techniques, the conceptualization of what has been learned, while the latter is defined as a kind of constant internal dialogue in which, in intimate solitude, each person judges his or her own actions. Eichmann lacked “thought,” or at least did not exercise it as he orchestrated the sorting out of thousands of Jews with a view to their execution. This made him a “new agent of evil,” who, without in the least resembling those who acted from strong ideological convictions, joined a   mass without an ideology and devoid of consciousness that contributed – actively or passively – to the “horror.”

As for incapacity to judge, Arendt distinguishes three groups: 1) nihilists, who, believing there are no absolute values, exercise  power; 2) dogmatists, who cling to a predetermined position; and 3) ordinary citizens, similar to the mass-man identified by Jose Ortega y Gasset, that is, the majority group that uncritically assumes the values of their society. All these groups are devoid of thought as understood by Arendt. She argued that Nazism was nurtured and encouraged by these three groups, and it was this that allowed the bulk of the country to perpetrate those crimes against humanity. However, the Jewish writer explains that this absence of dialogue is not an evil in itself, let alone leading to acts that are bad a priori. It is in extreme situations – such as the Nazi regime  in Germany, and even before its establishment – that the banality of evil stands out as complicity in, and even sympathy for the “horrors.”

The thought of Arendt, a disciple of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, can be likened to modern existentialism. In one of her most representative works, The Human Condition, she  conducts a study of the state of humanity in the times given to her. She defines the “human condition” as what determines it, denying “human nature” as the first reference. She highlights “three fundamental activities” on which that condition rests: labor, work and action. All three are encompassed in the concept of “active life,” and each corresponds to an aspect of life: biological.

The need to recover the ability to reflect on the meaning of life

Intellectuals who have dealt with banality, such as Bauman and Arendt, and a book by Manuel Fraijó, Semblanzas de grandes pensadores,[8] invite us to read about and promote critical thinking, to rethink our lives in the context of liquid culture and banality. A society that runs the danger of the “flat electroencephalogram,” that thinks only of entertainment, escapism, consumption and the “disposable,” is in radical need of an antidote, as Fraijó suggests.

On the long, arduous and sometimes sterile path of reflection we are not alone; we have been preceded by many men and women (the latter, however, appear very infrequently in philosophy textbooks). We are not alone: we try to progress from what others before us have thought. On February 15, 1676, Isaac Newton wrote to physicist Robert Hooke, “If I have seen farther, it is because I have climbed on the shoulders of giants.” This aphorism actually seems to date back to Bernard of Chartres (died ca. 1130). Whoever its author, it deserves our attention. The social history of the sciences shows that the development of rational thought is usually not the work of an isolated individual.

Thomas S. Kuhn, for instance, highlighted the importance of scientific communities in building paradigms that strengthen, transform or debunk scientific theories. Similarly, the social sciences grow and develop from given conceptions of the world and reality. Historically, it has been the so-called “Thinkers,” the privileged minds who, standing on the shoulders of previous thinkers, have given impetus to the interpretation of social processes.

We need to relearn to think, to appreciate those we consider “Thinkers.” It is necessary to train a generation of men and women endowed with critical capacity toward reality, who are determined not to live in the banality of the ephemeral. In a multicultural society, the construction of spaces and platforms for interdisciplinary reflection becomes urgent, in order to challenge the dominant mass culture, which seeks only to consume, without bothering to transform lifestyles.

In this perspective, the search for the meaning of life in a multicultural society is an exciting task. Shared reflection with those who can be called “Great Thinkers” opens horizons to the possibility of being a valued contributor in the 21st century.

It is not easy to delineate the concept of Great Thinkers. In the book we are referring to it is attributed specifically to those who from rational (philosophical) reflection have explored  different worldviews, the place of the human being in them and the meaning of human values and life in the context of a globalized world. Fraijó refers in particular to 22 “great masters of thought,” from Confucius to Karl Rahner, passing through such different figures as Martin Luther, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Kant.

In a world like ours, in which the culture of escapism and banality appears to be winning, recognizing that there have existed and still exist people whose fundamental concern is reflection can act as an antidote and foster the building of a society of free men and women who can be the architects of their own destiny.


Today, there is a need to stimulate critical, rational, non-banal, interdisciplinary thinking, bringing together scientists, engineers, philosophers and humanists, theologians, economists and devotees of the spiritual sciences (as Wilhelm Dilthey posited), whose task should be seeking and building together interpretive systems of reality that give global meaning and answers to the great question already posed by Immanuel Kant: what is man?

Fraijó states in the prologue to his work, “All the thinkers mentioned in this book agree in disdaining the obvious and devoting themselves to reflection. From its beginnings, philosophy has started from the assumption that nothing is obvious, that wonder and perplexity dwell in everything around us. Arthur Schopenhauer knew this well when he wrote, ‘Life is painful; I have resolved to spend it reflecting on it.’ Husserl, one of the 20th century philosophers who most valued philosophical reflection, left us something similar: ‘I necessarily had to philosophize, otherwise I could not have lived in this world.’ It remains only to hope that Fichte’s adage is not true: ‘If you philosophize, you do not live; if you live, you do not philosophize.’ It will always be possible, in my opinion, to unite life and philosophy, thought and experience.”[9]

We will always have need for the multifaceted perspective of the thinkers that Fraijó offers us, and with them so many other men and women who have elaborated, are elaborating and will elaborate multidisciplinary answers to the great questions of humanity.

DOI:  La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 10, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.10

[1].    Cf. Z. Bauman – L. Donskis, Moral Blindness. The loss of sensibility in liquid modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013.

[2].    Cf. J. M. Mardones, Síntomas de un retorno. La religión en el pensamiento actual, Santander, Sal Terrae, 1999.

[3].    Cf. M. Redondo, “5 ideas de Zygmunt Bauman que retratan a la sociedad moderna”, in Hypertextual (, January 10, 2017.

[4].    Cf. Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.

[5].    L. H. Rodríguez, “Hannah Arendt, sobre la banalidad del mal”, in Newtral (, October 14, 2019.

[6].    Cf. H. Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 2018 (or. 1958).

[7].    Cf. Id., Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil, London, Penguin,2006 (1963).

[8].    Cf. M. Fraijó, Semblanzas de grandes pensadores, Madrid, Trotta, 2020, 353-370. The author is professor emeritus of philosophy of religion at the Universidad nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid.

[9].    Ibid., 13.

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