• Print
  • TWEET

‘Evil Has Been Trivialized’: A Final Conversation with Zygmunt Bauman

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Flowers laid near Utoya Island after Anders Behring Breivik’s mass-murder attack, Norway, July 24, 2011

At the time of his death, in 2017, the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman was working on a short book with the Italian journalist Thomas Leoncini. What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation drawn from Born Liquid, his last published work; the phrase refers to a generation born after the 1980s into a society in a state of constant flux.


Thomas Leoncini: Have you ever been bullied?

Zygmunt Bauman: Yes, I was. Permanently, daily. Throughout my schooling in Poznan, Poland, until my escape from my hometown at the outbreak of war. In the company of the other two Jewish boys among the pupils. Obviously, I wasn’t then a trained sociologist, but I remember understanding quite well that being bullied was a matter of exclusion. You are not like us, you do not belong, you have no right to join our games, we won’t play with you; if you insist on sharing in our life, don’t be puzzled by all that beating, kicking, offending, degrading, and debasing.

Much later I understood, once I started reading sociology books and learned to think sociologically, that the exclusion of three Jewish boys in the several-hundred-pupil-strong school was, for our persecutors, the flip-side of the coin of their self-identification. Somewhat later still, I followed the novelist E.M. Forster’s advice, “only connect.” It dawned on me that appointing an enemy and proving his inferiority, by hook or by crook, was the inseparable second face of the self-identification coinage. There wouldn’t be “us” were there no “them.” But fortunately for making real our wish to stay together, to like each other and help each other, there are “them” and therefore there are—there need to be—“us,” manifesting our togetherness in word and deed and never tiring of reminding ourselves of it and demonstrating—reaffirming—proving it to others around.

For all practical intents and purposes, the idea of “us” would be meaningless if not coupled with “them.” That rule, I am afraid, does not bode well for the dream of a world free of bullying.

Leoncini: So you’re talking about exclusion.

Bauman: Demand for bullying, and above all for its objects and reasons, hardly ever goes to sleep—and, indeed, it never did. At one time, life’s bitterness blamed demonic possession; then, unsuccessful marriage or lack of orgasms; later still, it was sexual exploitation and abuse by parents; currently, it’s childhood sexual harassment by teachers, priests and—best of all—celebrities; now homosexuals are the culprit—but you forgot to mention the migrants, currently leaving every other pretender far behind…

Leoncini: The migrants, you’re right: another distinct problem facing us today.

Going back to bullying, the story of Kitty Genovese comes to mind; more than being about indifference, it is a story that is often used as an example in social psychology to emphasize how people tend to shift personal responsibility onto the level of collective social responsibility, forgetting that in everyday life people are influenced by a strong sense of individuality and this affects their social relations. Kitty Genovese was a woman from New York who was stabbed to death close to her home, in Kew Gardens, in Queens. It happened in 1964, and the next day The New York Times dedicated the front-page headline to the subject: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

Without going into too much detail about the story and the controversy that it sparked (searching for the truth, Kitty Genovese’s brother later pointed out a number of mismatches between the newspaper reports and what actually happened), to put it bluntly, what is the conclusion? Here it is: a single witness to a tragic event, realizing he is alone, is more likely to go to the aid of the victim than an individual who realizes that he is with others, with a collective presence of other people.

Bauman: If I remember correctly, during the debate that followed and went on for a length of time unusual for moral panics, I heard for the first time of the concept of the “bystander”—a person who witnesses evil being done but turns their eyes the other way and does nothing to stop it.

That concept struck me immediately as perhaps by far the most important category among those absent from the studies of genocide but crying for admission. It took me, however, two decades to give it the justice it deserved in my own attempt to crack the mystery of the Holocaust conducted at the peak of the modern civilization.

(Genovese was murdered in 1964, at the threshold of what was perceived as a cultural revolution re-evaluating all values—as the 1960s were soon to become recorded in the annals of cultural history—and before learned attention found another topic on which to focus; as the psychologist Gordon Allport once caustically—and only partly tongue-in-cheek—put it, we in human sciences never solve issues, we only get bored with them… What Allport neglected to mention, however, was that not every problem has a solution; many don’t—and gratuitous murders like Genovese’s belong to that category. Policemen who, as we learn from detective films, seek motives in the first place, have an impossible task to perform—and so do the prosecutors, and the jury, and the judges.)

But we may say retrospectively, with the benefit of later insights, that the Genovese case brought to the surface one more phenomenon destined to acquire more and more somber importance in the years that followed, and yearning to be caught in the conceptual net: that of “random evil,” or “disinterested evil.” At his trial, the perpetrator, Winston Moseley—the murderer—told the jury that he chose a woman rather than a man for a victim simply because women “were easier and didn’t fight back.”

Norbert Elias, the formidable German-British sociologist and social historian, in 1939 memorably unpacked the concept of the “civilizing process” as referring not so much to the elimination of aggressiveness, undue coercion and violence from human life (that, probably, he considered a downright utopian idea), but as, so to speak, “sweeping all three of them under a carpet”: removing them from the sight of “civilized people,” out of places such people are likely to visit, or all too often even to hear about, and transferring them to the charge of “inferior people,” excluded for all practical intents and purposes from the “civilized society.” Efforts to achieve such an effect went together with elimination of behavior which had been recognized, evaluated, and condemned as barbaric, coarse, crude, discourteous, ill-bred, ill-mannered, impertinent, impolite, inelegant, loud-mouthed, loutish, rude, unseemly or vulgar—and, all in all, uncouth and unfit to be used by “civilized persons,” and degrading and discrediting them if used.

Elias’s study was published on the eve of the most barbaric explosion of violence in the history of the human species—but, at the time it was written, the phenomenon of “bullying” was all but unknown, or at least stayed unnamed. When, in the last decade, violence returned from exile with a vengeance, and vulgar language elbowed out the elegant speech from salons and the public stage, numerous disciples and followers announced the advent of a “de-civilizing process” and leaned over backward to explain the sudden, unanticipated reversal in the human condition—albeit to little, unsatisfactory, and unconvincing effect.

The cynicism and aimlessness of “random” or “gratuitous” evil escape understanding and “rational,” “cause-and-effect” explanations, which in our modern way of thinking it must possess. Novel, unfamiliar, heretofore unnoted (let alone mentally and emotionally assimilated) events tend to shock simply because they are such. Similar events, when repeated, multiplying and watched or heard of daily, tend to be stripped of their shocking capacity. However appalling and horrifying they might have been at their first appearance within sight, they become, through the monotony of their repetition, “normalized,” made “ordinary”—in other words, they are trivialized, and the function of trivia is to amuse and entertain, rather than shock.

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik committed two mass murders: one targeting the government and contingent civilian population, the other against the inmates of a summer camp run by the Workers’ Youth League. He explained his crimes in advance in an electronically published manifesto sounding the alarm against Islam and feminism joining forces in “creating a European cultural suicide.” He also wrote that his main motive for the outrage was to “market his manifesto.” We may say that Breivik appealed here to the present-day common sense: the more scandalous and dire the advertising copy, the higher the TV ratings, the newspaper sales or box-office profits it may generate. What strikes a thoughtful reader, nevertheless, is the total absence of a logical link between the cause and effect: Islam, feminism on one side, and the random victims of mass murder on the other.

We are being quietly adjusted to this logic-defying, indeed mind-boggling, state of affairs. Breivik is anything but an exceptional, one-off blunder of nature, or a solitary monster without likes and progeny: the category of which he is a member is notorious for recruiting ever new members through the mechanism known as the “copycat.” Look, for instance, around American campuses, schools, and public gatherings; watch the terrorist and other violent acts incessantly screened on TV; check the repertoire of cinemas near you, or browse through the successive lists of bestselling books, to see how much we are daily exposed to the sights of random, gratuitous, unmotivated violence—violence for its own sake, and no other.

Evil has been fully and truly trivialized, and what really counts among the consequences is that we have been, or are rapidly being, made insensitive to its presence and manifestations. Doing evil no longer demands motivation. Has it not—bullying included—been shifting in its great part from the class of purposeful (indeed, meaningful) actions to the space of (for a growing number of bystanders) pleasurable pastime and entertainment?!


Born Liquid: Tranformations in the Third Millennium, by Zygmunt Bauman and Thomas Leoncini, is published by Polity Books.