A response to Colin Falconer
Historical author Colin Falconer brought up interesting yet disturbing points in his November 13 blog post, “For Evil to Triumph.”
Colin comments on the recent Men’s Health article by Bill Phillips, “Why Joe Paterno Didn’t Call the Police,” about alleged child abuse at Penn State. The article draws parallels between the failure of people to report the alleged abuse and the controversial psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961.
As Colin describes:
“[Milgram’s] tests were designed to measure the willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure who told them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.
“[This] was inspired by [Milgram’s] curiosity about how millions of people in Nazi Germany could go along with horrors of the Holocaust, even when it violated their deepest moral beliefs.
“A volunteer was given the role of teacher, and separated from the learner; they could communicate but could not see each other. The ‘teacher’ had a list of word pairs to teach the ‘learner’. If the answer was incorrect, the ‘teacher’ would administer a shock to the ‘learner’, with the voltage increasing in 15 volt increments for each wrong answer.
“The ‘learner’ was an actor; but the ‘teacher’ did not know this. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Though clearly uncomfortable about it, most continued after being assured that it was necessary and that they would not be held responsible for the outcome.
“How many continued to the final, potentially lethal 450-volt shock?… 26 out of 40. Even with their ears ringing with the screams of their ‘victims’, authority won over. They listened to the man in the white coat before they listened to their own inner voice. Ordinary people, good people, thus became agents in immoral and destructive behaviour.”
Phillips notes that “humans are programmed to not question authority…. And men are even less likely to rat out an authority figure when that person is also a mentor.”
Colin suggests, “It seems to me that as human beings we all have a higher authority that we surrender our scruples to.”
My question is, why surrender?
My question is, were these people good?
Ordinary, maybe. Good… maybe not so much.
They may never have been in a situation like this. It was unfamiliar, uncomfortable. The guy in the white coat assured them nothing was wrong.
Things like this didn’t happen in their normal reality. They’d entered an alternate reality, a sort of fairy tale. The guy in the white coat would protect them through this Twilight Zone.
Under these circumstances, I disagree that their “inner voice” told them to stop. I believe it may have told them it was fine to murder.
Those 26 of 40 may have felt they could distance themselves from the result of their action. They could do this by hiding behind someone else. In return, they granted that someone “authority” over them.
By sleight of mind, responsibility could have been mentally transferred to the leader. The authority figure could have become a buffer zone between themselves and the reality of their decisions and actions.
“Obeying” was what the leader received in return. The leader had “power”—to do what? To set up the rules of the fairy tale. And once reality exploded the fairy tale, the result was the leader’s “fault.”
In reality, outside the fairy tale, wasn’t this what happened instead: the followers sacrificed the authority figure to the action they themselves decided to take.
That sort of authority figure is not a leader.
In circumstances like this, the person who’s set up as the authority figure is nothing but a scapegoat.
By S.J. Driscoll