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History to the Defeated

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The Oxford University Press blog quotes Donald Trump as attributing the death of George Floyd to "a bad apple" and that 99% of the police are "great, great people".

On the campaign trail in 2016, vice presidential candidate Mike Pence remarked, after a fatal shooting by police of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old African-American man: "Donald Trump and I know and believe that the men and women of law enforcement... they're the best of us and we ought to set aside this talk... about institutional racism and institutional bias."

The "bad-apple" theory was first propounded by George Bush in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil (2007), and the mind behind the famous (infamous?) Stanford Prison Experiment, emphatically said "No".

The SPE had shown how normal people, screened for abnormality, can, in a certain situation, do the unthinkable. The similarities with Abu Ghraib were striking.

In 1971, Zimbardo, then a young professor of psychology at Stanford University, was interested in studying the effects of prison roles on behaviour. Like Stanley Milgram before him, he put an advertisement in the newspaper, and selected twenty-two participants, after carefully screening them for any kind of abnormality. The 'prison' was located in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department. To make the situation seem more real, he had the Palo Alto police 'charge' the 'prisoners' in public mock arrests. When they arrived at the prison, they were made to strip, delouse and forced to wear specially designed smocks.

Within two days, the situation began to take over. Some guards became sadistic and devised ingenious ways to humiliate and intimidate the prisoners (physical violence was not allowed). One guard, nicknamed 'John Wayne' by the prisoners, was especially adept at devising new kinds of torment. He played sexual games in which he 'forced' prisoners to perform acts of sodomy. Some prisoners rebelled, others became passive and some appeared to have emotional breakdowns. After six days, the experiment had to be stopped, but only after Christina Maslach, Zimbardo's graduate assistant and a relative outsider (whom he later married), expressed her shock at the evil of the situation (the SPE is summarised in David Houghton's Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals And Cases (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp 59 - 61).

Philip Zimbardo questions the 'good-evil' dichotomy, arguing instead that the distinction is permeable and nebulous. Given the right - or wrong - situation, we are all capable of committing acts of evil. This recalls Hannah Arendt's famous expression, "the banality of evil".

The novelist par excellence, Joseph Conrad - an outsider and victim of imperialism - specialised in positioning individuals in extreme situations: Lord Jim is a hero in one situation, and a coward in another; Mr. Kurtz is a saint in Europe, and a murderer in Africa.

This view, called situationism, is distinguished from dispositionism, our natural tendency to blame human wickedness. In the case of the unfortunate George Floyd and his alleged murderer Derek Chauvin, there appears to be a strong case for a situationist explanation. In Zimbardo's picturesque description: the barrel is bad.

What is the barrel here?

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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