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Six Years Ago: Jenny Diski Writes About Stanley Milgram's Torture Experiments

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Milgram's study of obedience had a very mixed reception among his colleagues, not just because of its poor theoretical underpinning, and the fact that it was written up in glossy monthlies and popular weeklies rather than by Milgram in a professional journal, but because the experiment itself was thought to be unethical. Putting people under such extreme stress, even though they were told at the end that they had hurt no one, couldn't be done today: academic ethical standards committees would refuse permission for funding. These days, however, nothing prevents similar 'experiments' (Big Brother, the reworking of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Castaway & Co) being carried out repeatedly for our fascination and entertainment on reality TV shows, and I wonder if that doesn't tell us something about the nature of the original experiments. The public, however, read newspaper reports of the obedience experiments in the mid-1960s and bought Milgram's 1974 book in industrial quantities. It seemed to be addressing important problems.

The search for the illumination of dark truths was rampant in the middle years of the 20th century, those post-Holocaust, Cold War, Vietnam years, before the Reagan/ Thatcher era. We read testimony of the concentration camps, and then Colin Turnbull's study of the Ik, which proved that natural man is a complete sh*t (or, later, that natural man is a complete sh*t when unnatural man makes him so), was dramatized by Peter Brook, as was Oliver Sacks's evidence for I'm not sure what in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Napoleon Chagnon's study of the Yanomamo tribe flew around the world as further evidence that humanity had none. We read Foucault, who proposed that we were all subject to an authority so nebulous as to be undefeatable. Earlier, in the 1960s, even Shakespeare got in on the act with Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary: the hopeless anti-heroics of Hamlet and the Nietzschean Iago were the very stuff that man was made on. We sucked in the awful tales of human beings and their fathomless vileness like babies on a truth tit. It's funny that the postwar children have come to be regarded as a formlessly liberal generation when, as I recall, one of the main projects was to confront the dark side of humankind in order to learn how it might be neutralised. We might well have been guilty of thinking too shallowly, of gulping our facts and developing a taste for the bitter; but happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire and carefree is not how I remember it. After the Holocaust, man's capacity for cruelty no longer seemed to be something to do with the remote past and its lack of indoor lavatory facilities or comprehensive schools, but was what our own parents were capable of doing. And if our own parents, then with the added blast of the newly discovered structure of the double helix that wove our parents into our every cell, why not us?

It didn't seem possible (surely, no one thinks of themselves as being rotten?), but the banality of evil, or at any rate the quotidian nature of mercilessness, was there in front of our eyes, and the postwar generation of social scientists were intent on devising ways to prove it. We marched against nuclear weapons not just because of their moral poverty, but also because the more we found out about what humanity was capable of, the less we could be deceived by the notion that safety lay in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It seemed like a good idea to know the awful truth about ourselves, although nowadays I'm not sure that just knowing helps much. We were, if ever there was one, the generation which believed that to know thyself was to be in a position to change. We must have botched the first task, because we've certainly bungled the second.

I suspect, however, that we failed to notice a missing term in the proposition. Between knowing ourselves and change, lay the chasm of how change might come about. An ill-digested Freudianism suggested that only awareness was necessary for the great catharsis. Bring the dark out into the light, show what is hidden, and all will be well. You have to become aware of what you (that is, we) are like and then, somehow, you (that is, we) will be different. Thinking of this kind was the problem with the obedience experiment. Milgram set out with the echoes of Nuremberg and the almost contemporary Eichmann trial in his mind: perhaps it wasn't just Germans who did what they were told. But having discovered that Americans, too, valued obedience to authority, that indeed we are all inclined to do what we are told, there was as ever no automatic bridge between knowing and changing. We must learn from this, Milgram said; we all said. But no one said how we were supposed to learn from it. It seemed it should have been obvious.

Plainly, it wasn't. In spite of the atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, this very year, politicians and public alike in the US and the UK declared themselves baffled, disbelieving and amazed that American and British soldiers could torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. They meant, usually, American and British soldiers. Not even the elementary lesson Milgram had to teach has been absorbed. It is still thought that bad guys do bad things and good guys (that's us) don't do bad things. That's how you tell the difference. Then it turned out, quite recently, that telling the difference was a very big problem. For politicians (criminally self-interested or criminally sincere) to declare our natural goodness and their natural badness is one thing, but that anyone believes there is an inherently moral distinction which can be defined geographically or racially means people just haven't been paying attention to what the 20th century of which the Milgram study was little more than a reiteration and foreshadowing made hideously clear. Tell people to go to war, and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will. Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work. Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this country did not want to join the US in making war on Iraq. This country joined the US in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. The dissenters marched and argued and put posters up in their windows, but . . . Great passions were aroused, and yet . . . For the past eighteen months, the Independent newspaper has been producing astonishing front pages to make you weep, still . . . It all happened, and goes on. It could be inertia, or a sense of helplessness, or it could be that our fear of the consequences of disobedience holds sway over our judgment. It looks as if in every generation there is moral panic and a perception (or hallucination of the horror to come) of the next generation as having lost its predisposition to be obedient. Civilization depends on most of us doing what we are told most of the time. Real civilization, however, depends on Milgram's 35 per cent who eventually get round to thinking for themselves.

But that, too, is a lazy, sentimental attitude. The 65/35 per cent split between the compliant and the resistant is just another version of good and bad, and leaves us essentially ignorant and free to declare our particular righteousness. Bush can take Milgram's division to signify Americans and Terrorists; bin Laden can use it to denounce the evil West to the Followers of Allah; Hitler to set Germans against Jews; Zionists to divide Jews from Palestinians. And Milgram is no help at all."


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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)

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A discussion of what circumstances allow a person ... by sometimes blinded on Sunday, Apr 11, 2010 at 8:27:59 AM
for this insight, sb. Jenny Diski has become my fa... by GLloyd Rowsey on Sunday, Apr 11, 2010 at 8:40:21 AM
My problem, (or my advantage), was to not conform.... by marko polo on Monday, Apr 12, 2010 at 11:24:20 AM
Lloyd - Thanks for the valueable article on experi... by David McCauley on Tuesday, Apr 13, 2010 at 6:56:02 AM