Flipping Switches

In that tiny room, sitting beneath the stern gaze of a man in a white coat, would I have done it? Would I have continued to press my index finger to cold metal and administer shocks to a stranger as he cried out and begged me to stop? Would I have refused to obey when the man with the power of science and authority told me I “must continue?”

Reading about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, I will say that I would not do it. I will tell you that I would stand up and question the ethics of the experiment. I would know that I had a choice, and I would act upon that choice autonomously–knowing the difference between right an wrong.

And yet, as I tell you all of these things in confident syllables, there will be a sliver of doubt between my furrowed eyebrows. Could I say no when I have been trained to say yes? When I have been raised in a school system that teaches me to respect my teachers and do what they say? In a society where authority and divisions and separations are necessary to function? Where the mechanical operation of humans has, in many ways, come to mirror the technological progress that allows so many imagined ideas to be made real systematically? A culture where bombs can be dropped at the push of a button without the button-pusher having to witness any of the screaming or blood or carnage wreaking havoc below the quiet drone of his plane engine?

In a 2005 paper by Pinter and Martin studying the 1974 Milgram experiment as a Dilemma of Obedience , we are reminded that the proximity of the subject in Milgram’s experiment to the planted “victim” of the shocks makes a difference when it comes to willingness and motivation to halt the experiment. The closer you feel to the person upon which you are inflicting pain, the more difficult it is for you to do so. When told to continue shocks despite obvious discomfort of the victim, it is much more difficult to flip the switch when he or she is seated before you. Or, in a more extreme pilot version of the study, when you have to physically take the victim’s hand and place it on the shock plate. Very few subjects are willing to perform this task. However, in this particular study, one who was willing is used as an example:

Bruno Batta, a thirty seven year old welder with a “rough hewn face… [and] over-all somewhat brutish [appearance,]” is described as having limited intelligence and “submissive.” We might think about the way he is portrayed before his actions are even described. We are led to believe that those in the “lower” strata of society are more likely to follow orders–presumably because that is what they have been doing for the majority of their lives as machine-like blue collar factory workers. The question that forms around the edges of these assumptions is whether this inclination to obey is natural… or nurtured by society. In Bauman’s 2011 paper A History of Evil, we are asked this question again and again.

Toying with the notion that our human histories of evil might be traced back to a common origin, Bauman asks us; “How do good people turn evil?…[What is] the secret of the mysterious transmogrification of caring people, and friendly and benevolent neighbours, into monsters?”

It is much more frightening to believe that evil is the norm rather than the exception. In the example of Mr. Batta (an outwardly generic man who any one of us would pass on the street daily or stand in line behind while waiting to pay for a carton of milk) we are terrified to learn that “when the experimenter instructs him to force the learner’s hand down, he adopts a rigid mechanical procedure…he immediately forces the learner’s hand onto the shock plate. All the while he maintains the same rigid mask. The learner, seated alongside him, but with robotic impassivity, he continues the procedure….meanwhile, he relates to the experimenter in a submissive and courteous [way.]”

The use of words like “rigid” and “robotic” and “impassive” leave us hoping that this man is slightly deranged–that perhaps he was alienated as a child and can be separated from us. We convince ourselves that we are more emotional creatures than this man. That we feel compassion in a way he cannot. That he is an outlier in society. We cannot face the harsh reality that in many ways he is “average.”

As Baumann argues in the end of his paper, it is much easier to believe that the horrible actions carried out by men and women like the Nazis and Abu Ghraib torturers and Anders Breivik and Pierre Riviere are the actions of monsters rather than the actions of our smiling friends and neighbors. It is too painful and complicated to imagine that we are all wolves in sheep’s clothing. Would it destroy us to understand that we all have the capacity for monstrous acts of evil? Or are we better off understanding that danger is around us 24 hours of the day 7 days a week–more conscious and able to protect ourselves and the ones we love? Baumann tells us that the latter is the case.

The British McCann family is an example of the terrifying possibility that a "normal" family could hide dark and evil secrets. When their daughter went missing on a vacation, investigation led to the parents as suspects in the death of their child. The media had a field day, and all over the world people grappled with the possibility that such a beautiful nuclear family could be so twisted. The investigation is ongoing. We might also think of the US Casey Anthony case--a situation where a mother is believed to have murdered her own child in cold blood. The media and the public have made her out to be a monster--isolating disturbing details about her life to create a monstrous portrait that reassures us we cannot relate to her (image from: http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Everyone%20Else/images/McCann-Family.jpg).

But still, the optimist inside of me cries out. She asks; What about all of the people who did stop the experiment? The professor who told the experimenter that he had free will and demanded the test be stopped and its ethics questioned? What about the electrical engineer who stood up and stated that he knew how these shocks felt and refused to put the “learner” in the mental agony he knew he was inflicting? Were these men only able to stand up to authority because they held authoritative positions of their own, or do they represent something more innately good about the human condition? Could it be that the  Milgram researchers, attempting to find a way to explain the atrocities of the holocaust performed by seemingly “normal” men and women who were so coldly able to detach themselves from their actions, simply found what they wanted to find–that anyone is capable?

Because the ethics of this particular experiment (and others like it–i.e. the Stanford Experiment) have been famously debated and questioned, they will never be repeated. Still, I wonder what I would do…

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