by Ted Dace
"I'm getting a little depressed about Iraq. Think of what it is doing to Bush. There doesn't seem to be any way out."
—Billy Graham (Time, August 20, 2007)
(Swans - September 10, 2007) Morris Braverman, a thoughtful, caring social worker from Connecticut, is doing his best. If only the dolt in the electric chair would get the hang of this unbelievably easy word-memory test, poor Braverman wouldn't have to keep shocking him. At 75 volts, the dolt grunts. By 120 volts, he's vociferously complaining. At 150 volts, he demands to be released from this crackpot experiment. With 285 volts crackling up and down his spine, he's screaming at the top of his lungs. Worst of all, the control board goes all the way up to 450 volts, surely a lethal dose.
And the creepy guy in the white lab coat isn't helping. "You must go on."
Though described as a "repressed and serious man," Braverman has come down with a bad case of the giggles. The more agonized the dolt screams, the more uncontrollable Braverman's laughter. He rubs his face to hide it. He presses his clenched fist against the table. He feels bad for the guy strapped in the chair, but he just can't help it.
It's the funniest damn thing he's ever seen.
Like 62.5% of his fellow subjects, Braverman goes to the end of the board, delivering an apparently lethal shock to the man who, by this time, has fallen silent after refusing to answer any more test questions. Unable to see the man, Braverman has no idea if he's just killed him. Finally the laughter has stopped. In the interview that follows, the scientist informs him that no actual shocks were delivered. The guy in the chair was acting. The only real shock is Braverman's.
Billed as an experiment to gauge the effects of punishment on learning, its true objective is to demonstrate just how far people will go in carrying out orders. Braverman is only one of thousands tested this way. Even those who disobey usually go to shocking lengths before coming to their senses. The experiment is replicated in many other labs, always with the same results. The conclusion is inescapable. A clear majority of us will kill a complete stranger on command.
Stanley Milgram, who described his famous experiment in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, expected different results. He figured only the occasional psychopath would continue to the end of the board. So does this mean 62.5% of us are psycho? On the contrary, when Milgram left it up to the subjects themselves to determine what level of shock they would administer, virtually everyone chose a harmless 15 volts. And in a variation on the experiment in which no authority was present and a seemingly ordinary guy at the lab got the bright idea to start administering shocks at ever increasing levels for each wrong answer, time and again the subject would heroically step in and put a stop to such lunacy. As Milgram writes, the willingness to shock "cannot be explained by autonomously generated aggression but...the transformation of behavior that comes about through obedience to orders."
Mrs. Rosenblum, a middle-aged housewife, is the very picture of a Nice Person. She volunteers to help "juvenile delinquents." She's a scout mother. She goes to PTA meetings. She speaks often of the importance of love and healing. And she hated -- just hated -- making that poor man scream. It broke her heart to have to continue shocking him even after he fell silent, ultimately pressing the button for 450 volts three times.
Seems that being nice doesn't mean much when the person you're trying to please is always the top dog and never the dead duck.
The crux of the matter, writes Milgram, is "the capacity for man to abandon his humanity...as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures." In the context of malevolent authority, admirable traits such as loyalty, discipline and, yes, even good manners become agents of destruction. "Do I go right to the end, sir?" asks another Nice Person. "I hope there's nothing wrong with him in there."
According to Milgram, following orders is ingrained in our species because we evolved that way. The tribe that's cohesive prevails over the one where everybody does their own thing. The problem is that conscience is rendered superfluous in the presence of authority. We turn inside-out as our behavior is based not on reason from within but orders from above. In a word, we become inverts.
In the inverted state, we will seize upon any justification for whatever horrible thing we've done. It's not my responsibility but the scientist's... It's for a good cause... The victim is an idiot and obviously deserves it... Besides, even as I keep pushing the buttons, I know in my heart it's wrong.
To act one way while privately thinking another way is called dissociation. Inverts are experts at dissociating thought from deed.
When a subject falters at his task, the guy in the white lab coat comes back with a prompt. "Please go on," or "You have no other choice," or, most ominously of all, "The experiment requires that you continue." This gives the subject the eerie feeling that the final authority is not something you can say no to, like a person, but the experiment itself. Nobody, not even the scientists who designed it, can stop it now. It's simply out of our hands.
A few years ago, I was the customer care specialist at a Glendale-based home service outfit. From San Diego to the Bay Area we fixed plumbing, wiring, heating, and air conditioning. My job was to prevent complaints from escalating to the Contractors State License Board. It was an important job because the CSLB could take away our license to operate. In the course of my investigations, I discovered that my company was corrupt to the core. We had a stable of crooked technicians systematically overcharging customers and sometimes even performing profitable but unnecessary work. Yet I stayed on, even taking pride at how efficiently I diverted complaints.
When the CSLB inevitably filed its accusation with the Deputy Attorney General, I was laid off. And then a funny thing happened. My unconditional loyalty to the company evaporated. Realizing I possessed useful information that could help take out a corrupt business, I went to the DAG, later testifying in court against my former boss, an act that would have been unthinkable when he was patting me on the back with one hand and signing my paycheck with the other. Outside the context of authority, I was no longer an invert and could act according to my conscience.
Writing at the tail end of the Keynesian, welfare-for-all era when the capitalist bug seemed to be contained as effectively as smallpox, Milgram didn't see much need to comment on the private workplace. Instead he confined his observations to bureaucracy in Washington and the war in Vietnam. This might explain why, despite meticulously noting the myriad ramifications of his ingeniously varied tests, he left one thing out. Prospective subjects had no idea, coming into the lab, whether they'd be sitting pretty at the control board or slicked down with electrode paste in the chair. To determine where they went, the scientist in charge would instruct the subject to draw a slip of paper from a hat. Of course, whatever they drew, it always said the same thing. Relieved at having drawn the "lucky" spot behind the controls, they would have been a lot more amenable to authority once the screaming began.
"It could have been me. Oh God, it could have been me in there." With a refrain like that echoing in your ears, you're a lot more likely to keep quiet and be grateful it wasn't. And this is exactly the mindset of the working American. "It could have been me working 12 hour shifts seven days a week in a Filipino sweatshop." So, when the politicians cut taxes for the rich or approve another round of no-bid contracts for the Halliburtons, nary a word of protest is heard.
Lowly corporate employees suspend their conscience five days a week in the service of a CEO equally enslaved to the bottom line. Big government maintains the privileged position of big business, which in turn contributes big bucks to the two super-parties. Meanwhile, mindless party allegiance keeps Democrats and Republicans alike voting against their own interests at every turn. Even with the White House reeking of sulfur, our most powerful allies continue to bow down before us, as we bow down at the altar of capital. The final authority is not human but the system itself, that centuries-old experiment in social and economic organization known as capitalism.
Of all the political philosophies, only anarchism is equipped to handle Milgram's findings. By abolishing rigid authority systems of all kinds, we may rid ourselves of the situational pressures that routinely turn us into inverts. Anarchist society depends on human conscience, that inbuilt compass that directs us to associate on the basis of mutual aid rather than mere self-interest. Instead of being imposed by authority, leadership emerges organically from within each group. No division exists between public and private as we the people care for ourselves and each other without the need for a nanny state or a rich investor to come along and save us.
It's a beautiful dream, but won't realizing it require exercising the very independence of mind we hope it will cultivate within us once we've attained it? Seems there's a catch-22 blocking the way out of our 62.5% hell. By all appearances, America has about enough fight left in it to wriggle like a baby in swaddling clothes; our pitiful, uncoordinated attempts at defiance only sinking us that much deeper into the asphyxiating embrace of state-capitalist authority. Can a revolution pull itself up by its own bootstraps?
The experiment requires that you continue.
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