Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Milgram and Zimbardo

All the "war on terrorism, axis of evil, values voters, and spongebobsquarepants is gay" talk over the last several years has finally gotten me around to thinking about the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments.

The Milgram experiment was the one where participants were told to apply electric "shocks" to other study participants who failed to provide correct answers to certain questions. The shocks weren't real, but the participants told to apply them did not know that. And a considerable majority of those told to go on "hurting" the other people went ahead with it. The gist of the experiment was it showed the extreme degree to which basically normally people would obey authority, even when it resulted in injury to others.

The Zimbardo experiment was an attempt to study prison behavior through the use of a simulated prison setting. Some of the participants were chosen to be "prisoners" while others were chosen to be "guards". Again, a random selection of seemingly normal people. The experiment was intended to last several days, but the "guards" became so abusive to the "prisoners" that the experiment was called off early.

I mention these experiments because I think they provide a fair and balanced alternative view of evil relative to the all too common perception that comes from the media and religious dominionists that evil derives from the individual alone, and that context, conditions or environment play little to no role in human behavior.

Obviously, the religious and economic elite have a strong interest, prurient and otherwise, in making people think that evil stems from individuals, is a matter primarily of sexual standards, that you shouldn't blame your environment or corporations for your economic status, and that the purpose of government is to make individuals docile, blindly patriotic and ignorantly paranoid of other people. The result is calls for "personal responsibility", "family values", pastoral exhortations that "if you vote for Kerry you should repent or leave the church", and policies like bankruptcy "reform", welfare "reform", Social Security "reform", anti-abortion and anti-gay legislation and amendments, and "academic bills of rights" to punish individuals and discourage or penalize dissent.

Now, I think this view is deeply troubling for those of us who value personal freedom, civil liberties, and the right to privacy.

But I also think this view as an indictment of society is objectively wrong as well. The primary threat to individuals and society is not other individuals or their sexual appetites. The primary threat to individuals and the challenge for society and government is power, concentrated, coercive power, whether public or private.

Which disturbs you more? The response of experiment participants to authority and conditions, or your neighbor's consensual sexual activities?

Very well. But what about religion and Christianity? Aren't sexual and other individual behaviors terribly vital in these belief systems? Weren't Sodom and Gomorrah distroyed by fire because of the homosexuality openly practiced in their midst? How do those of us who admit to being "people of faith" reconcile our spiritual beliefs to the realities of political life? Is religion still relevant? I'll attempt to address these issues in my next post.

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