Civil servants get caught up in things of not their own making

February 24, 2020 15:21
Months of social unrest last year has resulted in ordinary civil servants getting caught up in the crossfire between the public and the top government leadership in Hong Kong. Photo: HKEJ

I have several friends who are civil servants working in different capacities in the government, and I can say that they, like most of us, share a genuine love for Hong Kong, with their hearts in the right place.

Unfortunately, in the wake of months of social tensions, some mainstream media outlets have been demonizing the civil servants and portraying them as despicable individuals -- just because they are working for a highly unpopular administration.

Such characterization is wrong, and represents nothing more than name-calling and sensationalism on the part of the media.

However, I feel compelled to point out here that the people in power must bear in mind one important thing: even good folks can commit horrible wrongdoing under an unjust and twisted system.

According to the late Hannah Arendt, the world-renowned political theorist and philosopher, the most dangerous and common kind of evil is the “banality of evil”, under which participants in atrocities often don’t have any specific intention to inflict harm on others, nor are the crimes against humanity which they committed driven by ideology.

Rather, in many cases, an “evil” person may only be a dutiful civil servant who just wants to do his or her job right without any malicious intent to harm others.

Yet the problem is, if the system itself has gone wrong, or if the “initial orders” given by those in charge are wrong in the first place, it may breed evil no matter how rigorous the internal “gatekeeping” mechanism may be, or no matter how strictly the people who execute the order are following protocol.

The reason why the “banality of evil” is so horrifying is that it is omnipresent, and because of the fact that it is accepted as part of the natural order of things when a dysfunctional or failed system is blinding people to humanity and common decency in the course of doing their job or carrying out orders.

As a result, the civil servants may simply get stuck in the existing framework and become increasingly unable to extricate themselves from the spiral of evil.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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