One of my favorite blogs, Cognitive Daily, posted an article reviewing the publication of a study by Berger replicating the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and 1970s. Milgram’s experiments tested obedience to authority by having a study volunteer administer electric shocks to an anonymous participant under the direction of a person in a lab coat. If you aren’t familiar with the study, read the Cognitive Daily account.
Berger’s study was done about two years ago and the results were statistically insignificantly different from the original study. As recently as two years ago, people were still willing to fry the hell out of someone if a guy in a lab coat told them it was okay. As I read this article, I could not help but think about all the abuses of power we have witnessed in the last several years, from the Patriot Act to Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo. I remembered my father’s favorite cartoon from Pogo with the now infamous lines: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This tiny bit of media has become iconic in its message. But can we hear it?
I am glad that Obama wants to close Guantanamo. I worry, however, that instead of looking at what it is that makes us willing to violate the rights and humanity of others, we will look for a handful of soliders and officers to blame. It seems these days that we are not willing to look at what is happening to us all, to the system, but want to cleanse our guilt by finding out “who’s to blame.” It is akin to superstition: we burn an effagy at the stake, so we can be cleansed. While I am not in favor of allowing bad behavior to go unpunished, I think we need to remember Milgram’s, and now Berger’s, studies.
What is the system, or the general social climate, that makes us so willing to cede our authority and our individual right to make judgments and take responsibility. This is a slippery slope for human rights as well as the housing market. What are the fundamentals of a system (not a government, a SYSTEM), that is willing to endure and even promote blind authority. The result is behavior with no consequences.
I hope that in the closing of Guantanamo, that we can spend some time thinking, not blaming, but thinking about how we got here, what it is about people who are willing to give away power and abuse power, and how to build strength in people so the challenge of responsibility is welcomed rather than eschewed. I was happy to hear references to Americans needing to take responsibility in the Inauguration speech. I do hope that means each person and not someone for us, or I fear we will all be saying again “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” –PR
Reference to study: Jerry M. Burger (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64 (1), 1-11 DOI: 10.1037/a0010932
Pogo Cartoon from Wikipedia.