Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Obedience

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments with normal, everyday people. These people showed themselves to be willing to (apparently) give strong electric shocks, up to 450 volts, to subjects who were apparently suffering as a result of the shocks. The people administering the shocks were told that they were "teachers" and that the shock recipients were "learners," and that the whole setup was an experiment to determine the effects of negative reinforcement (Milgram didn't call it that) on learning. The real purpose of the experiment was to see whether people would administer these shocks. No one actually received any shocks--the "learners" were played by actors, but they did act as though they were in pain, etc.--but, much to Milgram's surprise, most people were willing to administer shocks. Milgram also did the original six-degrees-of-separation experiment, which is interesting in its own right. (Google Milgram and rummage around in the various sites, if you're interested.)

Milgram and others with/for whom he worked (e.g., Asch, I think) also studied the effects of groups on behavior. I remember another experiment, though I don't remember whether Milgram or anyone associated with him conducted it, had a subject in a group. The rest of the group was in on the experiment, but the subject didn't know that, and the people supposedly didn't know each other. There was some kind of question--which of these two lines is longer, something like that--and the people planted in the group gave wrong answers intentionally. Many subjects began to change their answers, even when the group's answers were clearly wrong.

Thus, the people testifying against Granger, and the people who reported his behavior, are interesting in their own right. Some people in the former group participated in some of the activities, though the ones quoted in today's paper say that they didn't feel right about what was going on, even when they were being reassured that it was fine, it was okay with higher-ups, etc. It apparently didn't stop them completely, but they did appear to have some qualms about what was going on and they seem willing to come forward and talk about it now, in whatever deals they made for their testimony.

And these guys make me think of Milgram's ordinary New Haven citizens. We obey authority. We comply. Yes, some of us disobey, some of the time; some of us even blow whistles, at great personal risk to ourselves, our livelihoods, and our families. And, really, I suppose we'd all like to think we'd have the courage to do that, that we would recognize that we feel that something's not quite right precisely because it's wrong. (But in the military? How the hell do you object in those circumstances?)

For better or, more probably, for worse, Stanley Milgram teaches us not to get our hopes up that we'd actually have that courage.

And that's why I don't know what to say to the guys testifying against Granger. I certainly want to deplore their behavior, and I think it deserves more than a finger-wagging and a slap on the wrist. It may even be the case that Granger is some kind of psychopath. But can you seriously maintain that these activities went on for months and months, in Iraq and likely Gitmo as well, and no one higher in authority had any inkling? Or do you want to claim that the people higher in authority didn't see anything wrong with these activities? Not informed about what was happening under their command, or condoning torture? Which is it? Because those are the two choices.

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