Sunday, December 13, 2020

Shocking the Monkey


 Since the beginning of the Trump era far too many people have been struggling to reconcile the hateful nature of MAGA supporters with their common beliefs about the general goodness of human nature. This extends even to myself because during the initial phases of the 2016 presidential campaign I would have never believed such crude and corrupted individual as the Orange Buffoon would be nominated by the Republican Party, much less actually become president.

Understand, way back before the 2008 election both my stomach turned and my eyes rolled whenever someone spoke dreamily about the glorious nature of a “post-racial America” since Barrack Obama was heavily favored to win that election.

To assume centuries of racial discrimination and oppression would suddenly evaporate with the election of the United States' first black president definitely leaned heavily into the realm of fantasy. However, it did seem unthinkable to me that anyone would seriously consider a clearly immoral and outright racist individual as the Orange Buffoon occupying the highest office in the United States.

In short, I fully expected that Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz would have been the 2016 nominee. The former a simple but dependable rehash of his father and brother. As for the latter, I thought he was the absolute outer edge of the rancid Republican value of profit over people and the party's hateful and skewed societal views.

Recently though I was reminded of the experiments performed by Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s. These experiments involved how people look at authority and obedience.

In fact Milgram's research can, in my opinion, best be summed up in one of his quotes from 1974. “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not such much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he acts.”

His experiment involved the recruitment of individuals using newspaper ads which each person was paid $4.50. These recruits were then told they would take the role as a “teacher” who would be asking a series of questions to a “student” in another room they could not see.

On a table in front of the teacher would be an intimidating device that Milgram said was a shock generator with the student in the next room attached to the business end of the machine. The teacher was told to give the student a shock every time they gave the wrong answer to the asked question . These shocks started at 30 volts and increased in 15-increments for every wrong answer going all the way up to 450 volts.

Increasing the stress on the teacher, the switches on the shock device were labeled with terms such as “slight shock,” “moderate shock” and “danger: severe shock.” The final two switches were labeled with nothing but “XXX” suggesting something darker.

Understand, while these teachers believed they would be applying an electric punishment for wrong answers, the students in the next room were perfectly safe and just play acting at the direction of Milgram.

As the experiment progressed the student's reaction to the electrically shocks got increasingly more desperate. The teacher would hear the student in the next room pleading to be released or even that he had a heart condition. Once they reached the 300 volt level the student would bang on the wall demanding to be released. Beyond that point the student went silent and refused to answer any more question. The teacher was instructed to treat the silence as an incorrect response and deliver further shocks.

At that point the teacher would ask the controller of the experiment if they should continue. The controller would respond with a series of commands to prod the teacher to continue:

  1. “Please continue.”

  2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”

  3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”

  4. “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

You'd think a normal person playing the role of teacher would at least stop shocking the student once the supposed test subject started pleading that the voltage was too painful. But in reality 65 percent of the teacher participates continued to apply the maximum shocks to their unresponsive and unseen students. It was noticed during the experiments, that many of the teachers became extremely distraught and angry at the controllers but continued to follow orders all the way to the end.

The immediate question has to be why did the teacher-participates continued applying painful shocks to an unseen student? The general answer is that the presence of an authority figure (controller) increased compliance. The fact that a trusted academic institution, Yale University sponsored the experiment lead many of the participants to believe it was safe, even after the student became unresponsive.

Milgram summed up his experiment with this statement: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work becomes patently clear, and they are asked to carry out action incompatible fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

So you might be wondering how all this ties into my point. Having the Orange Buffoon as president clearly gave license to the worst aspects of human nature. The natural authority that comes with holding that office allowed the Buffoon to give voice to all those barely hidden hates and fears, giving them an environment they could easily thrive. Sort of like the way mold loves to grow in wet and humid places.

For me, the worst aspect of having to live through such a repugnant individual's reign is that the damage the Orange Buffoon's done will not whither away with him out of office. Because once a mold like him takes hold in a house the repair work to get rid of it will be extensive and costly. Truthfully, taking the mold analogy further, Lincoln warned us of a house divided being unable to stand. The Orange Buffoon's mold might have already metastasized to the point the house is now contaminated beyond the ability of anyone to save it.

Nothing proves this point more than all the Republican congressmen who signed on in support of the Texas lawsuit attempting to overturn the election results in critical swing states. This was nothing less than an attempted coup to reinstall a delusional thug who harbored dreams of authoritarian power. Even after the Texas lawsuit was struck down, numerous fools in the Republican party started speaking about their states succeeding from the Union.

Even if the Orange Buffoon is in jail or dies between now and 2024, there are plenty of others who will take up his debauched mantle. 



Milgram's Experiment and the Perils of Obedience,, September 16, 2019


The Bug said...

This period of our history has definitely shown us who we really are. And it's not at all pretty.

Jeff said...

This is where my Calvinist theology comes into play with an emphasis on human sinfulness and depravity.

A real example of people blindly following "orders" is Christopher Browning's book, "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland." It's frightening to think about the role these "non-Nazis" played in wiping out large number of Jews in Poland.

Marja said...

I am aware of that experiment Pretty scary isn't it Makes you loose all your trust in human beings. Another such experiment was 'the third wave' A school simulated fascism and slowly changed the system and introduced saluting etc. At the end they revealed what happened and how easy it was to do.
I agree with you (and I love your analogy of the mold) that his damage is not easily undone.
So it is not going to be easy. I do think that what happened is a consequence of the state of the world of today. A reflection of what's going on. A lot needs to be changed for the world to become 'human' again

The Armchair Squid said...

As I recall, that experiment gained notoriety for another reason: the subjects - the poor people "just following orders" - were not debriefed afterwards!

We've learned a lot about ourselves over the past few years and it's not comforting. I don't think the calls for secession are sincere. I think it's crass political opportunism capitalizing on the anger of the moment. The problem is that it works and there are far too many among the electorate who take it literally.

We are living the curse. We are living in interesting times.