You can be made to physically torture your friend.
If you think that assertion is impossible then you’ve never heard of the Milgram Experiment.
In 1963, a Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, devised an experiment in an attempt to show the difference between Germans and Americans as it pertained to acquiescence and obedience in performing the kinds of grotesque acts made known during the 1961 Nuremberg War Criminals trial of Nazi SS Officer Adolph Eichmann.
Milgram set out to discover if the Germans were psychologically and culturally inclined towards obedience in simply following orders, as had been the common explanation for the German populace’s general permitting of, and participating in, the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
Milgram’s findings were shocking and deeply disturbing; but, for the purpose of understanding our current circumstances, they are also enlightening.
What Milgram found was that if two people who knew each other were physically separated and unable to view one another, and one was directly under the control of an authority figure, that individual could be directed to torture the third party in ever increasing increments even to the point of death.
So why is this half-century old experiment instructive?
People who crave power, wealth and control have always sought newer and better ways of manipulating and enslaving the masses of humanity who wind up doing the “heavy lifting,” thus allowing for an elite segment of the population in every generation to prosper at the expense of the many. Our generation is no exception.
The newest and to-date most effective delivery system for affecting this end is the Internet. Government, in cooperation with the media, are able to rapidly disseminate the facts of their choosing, generally misinformation or disinformation, to a public that consumes this information with little to no critical thinking. But this fact alone would not achieve the intended outcome were it not for two additional components.
First is the fact that what the government and the media disseminate, generally, are fear-based memes. These are ideas that are intended to confuse, conflate, and overwhelm for the purpose of generating a climate of fear. Fear is the best mechanism of control. Fearful people are desperate people who will seek any means to alleviate their desperation. The most common means of choice is anger. An angry person acts on offense by striking out at another rather than owning their own voluntary submission to fear. It’s always easier to blame someone else rather than take responsibility for one’s own action or inaction.
The second fact is that the Internet allows for anonymous anger in all its gradations…frustration, aggression, rage, hate and vitriol. This is the key to why and how Milgram’s findings are relevant and helpful if we are to alter our current trajectory.
Vitriolic hate speech is now everywhere on the internet. It has escalated exponentially during this election cycle. I do not believe it began with Mr. Trump. I believe he is the inevitable result of what was surreptitiously begun decades ago by the Progressive (Socialist) movement and which reached its zenith during the Obama administration, as our President began to make targeted and unveiled attacks upon his political opponents.
Two such examples are the President’s mocking of the Tea Party, a single issue political organization that simply sought a revision of the tax code. Yet, Obama thought nothing of mocking them in derisive and divisive language (“Tea Baggers”) or, in his speech to LaRaza saying, “We are going to punish our enemies and reward our friends” when referring to political opponents of his policies. This type of demonizing and divisive speech brought out of the closet, and sanctioned at the highest level, permission to get personal and condescending with one’s opponents.
When you combine theses three factors 1) the quest for control by fear-based means; 2) internet anonymity and, 3) permission to hate one’s adversaries you have created an environment where a Donald Trump can rise to the level of Presidential candidate and thereby make it permissible for anyone to openly express their fear, and ensuing anger, by way of personal attack and hate speech.
My point is not about for whom you should vote. My point is about taking back control of your own mind, jettisoning fear-based behavior, and realizing that you are being used. I realize that doing that is only half the problem. The harder part is what to do once that’s accomplished.
When I was in law school I had a run-in with a Professor who tried to have me removed from the school. He had a history of harassing students and then, through misuse of his power, frightening them into performing certain favors for him that were outside the scope of the professor/student relationship. One particular semester he set his sights on me. He intimidated and frightened first year students into doing his bidding or, in the alternative, suffering the consequences of his threats. While this pattern of behavior had been successful for him in the past, I was older than the average first year student and refused to comply.
He filed a formal grievance against me conjuring up false accusations. Rather than submit to his established position of power, I hired a Constitutional attorney to represent me in the hearing on his petition. After protracted hearings, the hearing judicial body concluded that 1) I had done nothing wrong, and, 2) that I should none-the-less offer him a public apology. When I inquired of the panel why was an apology in order for a finding of no wrongdoing they refused to provide the basis yet formalized their finding. I refused.
As a consequence, my graduation date from law school was delayed a year as I had to 1) make up his course in summer session which was the only time the required course was taught by a professor other than him and 2) I became so ill as a result of what I had gone through that I was out sick for one year with a stress related disease before I could return and complete my law school education.
Shortly after I returned to school following my illness, another Professor Emeritus, of national renown, summoned me into his office. He offered me a deal. He said that if I never spoke outside the school of what had occurred, he would allow me to do an extra-credit paper for him for which he would give me the three credits I had missed in having to drop out of the other Professor’s course following the hearings. When I asked him why it was contingent upon my not speaking of the incident outside the school, his reply was that “you are about to enter a very select profession and we don’t tell on our own.”
There I was studying Socrates, and the most honored legalistic principles humankind had ever created, and one of the icons of that profession was trying to bribe me into keeping silent the shame of this higher institution of learning and by so doing violate the very ethics it was teaching. I refused his offer of a deal.
Fear didn’t work on me. Yes, I paid a price in delaying my graduation. But I retained my ethics, my dignity and my truth. It was a price I’d pay again any day.
Perhaps it’s because I was raised by a father who taught me, by example, that authority, in and of itself, is not to be honored. That respect is earned not freely given. Or perhaps it’s because there is something in my nature that hungers for justice and ethical behavior. To some extent, it’s probably a combination of both.
More importantly, and of greater influence, is my belief that we are all autonomous beings with the ability to know truth and rightful action if only we demand of ourselves the courage of our convictions. Without a belief in autonomy and the courage to stand for it in the face of fear, we are all 1940 Germans turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the subtle, and not so subtle, atrocities that surround us.
In the Milgram Experiment there were only two participants who, as the voltage of the electric shocks escalated, adamantly refused to inflict more pain. All the other participants deferred to authority, however abhorrent. Which would we have been?
I am certain of my answer. Do you know yours?