Friday, October 1

The Perils of Obedience ~ An Essay Response

A staple for first year psychology students is a discussion of the famous Milgram experiment. Dr. Stanley Milgram was a social psychologist at Yale University deeply interested in the behavior of obedience. The Nazi war crimes trials in particular inspired his exploration of how humans develop the capacity to commit atrocities, and then excuse themselves because they were only “following orders”.

The Doctor devised a method to test ordinary people to see if they would commit acts against their conscience. His controversial psychological experiment presumed to test memory in word associations, but involved a key deception; the authority figure issuing orders was not really a doctor, and volunteers did not know the ‘student’ subject strapped to an electric chair was in fact an actor pretending to respond to electric shocks generated by the 'teacher' volunteer whose hand was on the controls. Clearly marked was a voltage range from 15 to 450, the words “Danger: Severe Shock” assigned to one of the last switches. The final range was simply represented by XXX.

As the voltage increased, the subject in the chair vigorously objected until he demanded to be released from the experiment, only to dissolve into agonized screams somewhere in the neighborhood of 285 volts.

The test focus of course was on the 'teacher' administrating the “punishment”. An authority figure toting a clipboard and clad in a white lab coat issued clinical prompts such as, "the experiment requires that you must continue," and "you have no other choice, you must go on." While some people expressed concern for the suffering they caused, and a few asked to stop the experiment, vastly more obeyed. Only one woman refused and walked away.

In an excerpt from “The Perils of Obedience”, Dr. Milgram compares his test subjects to Nazi Germany. While the shocking (no pun intended) results of his psychological test are truly very disturbing, he assigns a reckless weight to the capacity for inhumanity inherent to the human condition. Milgram’s repeated theme of reflecting on war crimes perpetrated for the sake of “following orders”, is limited and much too simplistic to explain something of the other-worldly scope and scale of the Holocaust.

The grinding punishment to Germany effected by the Treaty of Versailles and her deep resentment of it, an utterly oppressive economy and a centuries old bigotry against the Jews throughout Europe in general are all significant factors that contributed to the successful rise of the Third Reich. Hitler did not have the power nor the influence to impose a police state immediately. His rhetoric establishing the superiority of a master race celebrated within a fervently idealized nationalism was a corrosive ideology that gained ground gradually. Later, his strong-arm tactics to force Nazi ideology upon schools, the marketplace and the citizenry were also implemented gradually.

The incremental steps leading to the ultimate Holocaust included an entire generation of German youth forcibly removed from home and hearth and aggressively indoctrinated against natural loyalties to family, community, and faith. A sense of accomplishment and even destiny pervaded beginning stages of identifying, restricting and segregating Jews and other undesirables. Dr. Milgram might have focused instead on the influence of state-authorized propaganda heightened by the ever-increasing threat of (and public displays of) severe punishment to anyone who defies the state’s definition of what (or who) is “unclean” or unaccepted into the new social order.

In the issue of Nazi Germany, the question is not so much one of why people obey, as it is a study in how to market an immoral set of values to a damaged society. Post WWI Germany may have been a ‘perfect storm’ ripe for a visionary psychopath like Hitler.Middle-aged men striped of former economic and social status were self-indulgent (or desperate) to the degree that they were willing to align themselves with something that promised to restore their value, and then some. Young boys and girls were groomed to adulthood without the customary tempering of familial bonds and sense of community. Women, striped of their role as nurturer and care-taker to their families, lost what maternal influence they might have exerted in a more traditional society. Their dependence upon men also contributed to their loss of authority in the home; they were culturally inclined to follow their men into whatever political or sociological direction they marched. The defeated and hurting German citizenry at large was also primed to relish glorious promises that they were destined to be victorious over unemployment, poverty and their newly acquired under-dog status in the world. When the push for ethnic purity emerged, it only seemed appropriate as a compliment to the new world-order they were fated to create.

In “The Perils of Obedience”, we can identify neither a multitude of contributing cultural or historical factors nor the passage of time to explain why his subjects were either indifferent to human suffering or even pleased by it. The essay mentions similar testing done elsewhere with a variety of subjects from different ages and backgrounds with similar results to the Yale community. Considering this surprising fact, a different common denominator might be at play.

Equally weighty is the attraction to wielding power that almost every human feels or desires to some degree. The ‘natural man’ is one who would rather have authority - even a little bit - than not, if given a choice. The ‘teachers’ in Milgram’s test might then have been reacting to the very convenient transferral of authority, and not necessarily obedience to it.

Case in point: Consider the extreme and highly predictable transformation of the older brother or sister from loving companion to tyrannical despot as soon as the front door shuts and mom and dad embark on an innocent evening out. Little Mr. or Miss In-Charge instinctively responds to the authentic transference of power and authority by immediately lording it unrighteously over his/her younger siblings as the Babysitter From Hell. And why not? Children better than anyone understand that obedience sustains authority, and obedience in fear is much faster and easier than obedience by respect.

It is healthy and necessary to examine our individual capacity for exercising our free-will. In an open society such as we have in America, it is often a blurred line between duty or obedience to authority and our choice to honor it. To honor authority is to understand why it exists, and to agree that sustaining it is necessary for the greater good.

Everyone appreciates the uncontested flow of traffic safely regulated by numerous laws, signs and signals. At any given intersection or freeway interchange there could be tens of thousands of vehicles and unknown occupants who can anticipate safe passage virtually because of our mutual respect for and obedience to common traffic laws.

It is hoped that in such a society as ours, one that values the individual and his/her responsibility to the larger community - we will also foster people who understand the limits of authority. That being that no one shall have the right to impose upon another unjustly. That we should anticipate we all are individually accountable for our actions, regardless of whom is directing us to do what. That above all, we should expect to respond without hesitation to an inner-voice that reminds us we are no better than another, and that we know right from wrong without anyone telling us otherwise. Period.

Many of us would identify this intimate, guiding force as the human conscience. I refer to it as the Spirit of God within us. As His children, we ought to make individual choices with allegiance to that divine relationship above all else. Then, and only then we may identify willful obedience as devotion.


caleb said...

You have some real talent! I told you I would read your blog.
I have always felt that the main cause of World War 2 is a lack of courage. If the German soldiers would have just had courage to stand up for what they knew to be right then we wouldn't have this great tragedy in our history.
It's true, we are all accountable for our own actions. That's why it's so important to think before you act. This cheesy line can really come in handy if you really think about it with a purpose: "what would jesus do".
Courage is not about just doing the right thing when people are around. It is also about what you do when no one else is watching. We are always being watched, but it's the fact that we don't realize we're being watched and who it is that is watching.
Fortunately I am not a parental figure yet but I have seen it personally. Parents cant force kids to be good all the time cause they wont always be around but they can set the example for their children. If parents would just have the courage to be patient and set a good example life will go a whole lot easier. But don't take my word for it.
Having courage isn't always the easiest thing. If you feel like courage doesn't make your life better you're wrong but just remember you shouldnt be rewarded for doing things you're suppost to do so that's why you might not feel blessed for having courage. But there are consequences for all of our actions we just have to decide if we want positive consequences in our life or negative ones. It's not what happens, it's what you do about it. I'm rambling a little a bit so I'll just stop now. If you've read this much you're crazy.

calizona said...

Wow. Caleb - when are you launching your book tour?

These are some deep thoughts for a young fellow. I appreciate your reflections on society and our responsibility to it and to ourselves. Kudos!