Betraying both principles and friends- the famous Milgram experiments.

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to inform on their friends and colleagues and name names, refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, others felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more principled but risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment for this purpose. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. … This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one’s friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo’s letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: “How is it possible that … ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience … Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience.” His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim’s increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw actual footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The first segment (out of five) of is shown below but you really must see all five to get the full impact of it.

The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most had the normal aversion to inflicting gratuitous pain on others, were really anguished, and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and repeatedly sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

This is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

This explains why so many otherwise decent people are willing to condone the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture that are being carried out by the government. They have been reassured by the president, vice president, other high officials, and ‘respectable’ opinion makers, and that everything is fine and under control, that the victims are not really suffering any real harm and that these actions are necessary in order to achieve some greater good.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday’s post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one’s honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor. And ‘tortured liberals’ play important roles in this persuasion, providing an intellectual cover that makes people who instinctively revolt against violating their deeply held principles feel that they are somehow extremists and outside the norm.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state and its propaganda arms. We have to systematically create those resources.

The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what gives us the strength to challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource in this fight. I wonder what the result would have been if the people applying the shocks had had a friend with them.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A study found that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that “People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent.” Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

“[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem.”

Friends

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.
[Read more…]

The problem of tipping

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in November 2005.)
I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to repeatedly confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.
[Read more…]

Beware of the ‘tortured liberal’

The reason I usually disdain labels like liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican that are bestowed on people by the media is that their main purpose is to establish the author’s bona fides with specific segments of the population as a means of influencing them on what to think about a particular issue. For example, many people who consider themselves liberals take their cues from what prominently labeled ‘liberals’ say. So if you can get a ‘liberal’ spokesperson to advocate a policy, many liberals will take it seriously even if the policy is antithetical to their values. This was on prominent display during the lead up to the Iraq war, when many so-called media liberals were swept along by the hysteria of that time.
[Read more…]

No more benefit of clergy

In England in the Middle Ages, clergymen, monks, and nuns were exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts and could be tried for offenses only in ecclesiastical courts, a practice known as giving them the ‘benefit of clergy’. While that legal exemption has ceased to exist, it seems like we still grant religious people a similar benefit, the exemption now being from the ‘laws’ of logic and reason.
[Read more…]

Examples of political chameleons

In Monday’s post, I spoke about how we can expect to see the political chameleons of the one-party ruling class try to camouflage their past in order to blend in with their new political environment. Glenn Greenwald, easily one of the best political analysts around, sees right through this strategy. He reveals the truth about people like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who use their home in the allegedly ‘liberal’ Brookings Institution to help pursue this goal.
[Read more…]

‘Certified Sabbath Mode’

In our family we tend not to throw away stuff that can still be used but recently had to reluctantly conclude that our electric stove, which came with our house when we bought it twenty years ago and looked pretty old even then, needed to go to that Great Range in the sky. The filaments in both ovens had burned out and two of the four stove top burners had also stopped working, turning this huge apparatus into little more than a hotplate.
[Read more…]

Political chameleons

In analyzing politics in this country, the key to unlocking its underlying structure is to realize that what we have is essentially a single pro-war/pro-business party and that the Democratic and Republican ‘parties’ are merely factions of that one party, differing mostly on some social issues or on tactical matters. This underlying unity ensures that there is continuity in the overarching attempt to create an economic and political empire, using the military to achieve that goal when other means fail.
[Read more…]

The future of the Republican Party-14: The once and future queen?

It is time for me to leave that seemingly inexhaustible well of material that is Sarah Palin, though it is clear that we are not going to be free of her presence any time soon. There is no question that Sarah Palin was the phenomenon of the election. When was the last time that the losing vice-presidential candidate garnered so much continuing media attention after the election, totally eclipsing the winning counterpart?
[Read more…]

On being a contented loner

I have a confession to make: I am a bad Facebook friend. Although I have a Facebook account, I don’t do anything with it. From time to time someone will request that I be their friend and I almost always say yes even if I know them just remotely or they are just a friend of a friend. But to accept them as a friend is about the only time that I even log into my Facebook account. I have the vague sense that I should be doing more with the site, that somehow I am neglecting my Facebook friends, but am not sure what I should be doing.

So why did I join Facebook at all if I was not going to do anything with it? It started long ago when I read about Facebook in an article, when it was still limited to a few ivy league schools. I was intrigued by the concept because I felt that there were not enough avenues for students at Case to meet and socialize and I felt that Facebook might be a good thing to get started here. Since I was not quite sure how it worked, when the opportunity arose for non-ivy leaguers to join up, I was one of the first to do so to check it out. It seemed like a good thing and I recommended to the computer and student affairs people here that we should consider promoting it strongly amongst our students.

Of course, Facebook exploded in popularity without any help from us, and so I let the matter drop and forgot about my account. But after some time people discovered that I had a Facebook account and I slowly started getting requests to be friends. It seemed to me that the polite thing to do was to say yes. After all, how can you say be so churlish as to say no to a request from someone to be your friend? And so my list of Facebook friends slowly grew. Of course, the total number of friends I have is still tiny, in the double digits, unlike some people who have thousands. But I still feel guilty that I am ignoring this small group of people who took the trouble to reach out to me and I sometimes wonder what they think of me (“What a jerk. He never calls. He never writes. He never tells us what he is doing or feeling at the moment.”) I have thought of closing my account but that seems even ruder, like abruptly moving to another city and not giving people a forwarding address. So I am stuck.

(I am also puzzled by the occasional request to be a friend from people whom I do not know in the least, with whom I have no common Facebook friends, and who live in places I have never even been to. Why would they ask a stranger to be their friend? Is there some social networking dynamic that I am not aware of that is causing this?)

My problem is that I am somewhat of a loner. I do not actively seek out the company of people. (This is consistent with the post last week about how my writing pegs me down as an introvert.) I am perfectly content with my own thoughts and books and the internet. I do enjoy occasional socializing with friends, but even then I prefer conversations with a few people than large and noisy parties. If I do attend such a party, I try to find a few congenial companions and spend the entire evening in their company. I enjoy meetings with colleagues at work provided the meetings are not too frequent or go on for too long. After about an hour I start looking forward to going back to the solitude of my office where I can sort out my thoughts and put them into writing.

I also still do not own a cell phone, which shocks many people. When asked why, I reply truthfully that my job is such that emergencies do not arise and people do not need to contact me at short notice. Also my habits are fairly regular so that people can usually reach me at my office or at home. Furthermore, I have lived all my life quite happily without a cell phone and am not convinced that it has suddenly become a can’t-do-without item. In short, a cell phone has not become a functional necessity for me and I try to not clutter up my life with things I don’t need.

But there are two other major reasons that I usually leave unsaid. The first is that I hate talking on the phone. I am much more comfortable writing an email to someone or speaking with them face-to-face than picking up the phone and calling them. If I have to talk to people on the phone because the matter is too complicated to write about or requires a personal touch, I tend to get to the point quickly, and when the matter is settled, try to end the call as politely as I can.

I don’t know why I dislike phone conversations but I know I am not alone in this. Recently on some blogs the discussion turned to this topic and almost all of the bloggers said that they hated talking on the phone too. This is perhaps not too surprising. Bloggers, after all, are people who like the written word and have chosen to express their thoughts in writing.
The other reason that I do not have a cell phone is that I like to be left alone. There are many times when I simply do not want to be contacted. Once you have a cell phone, the presumption becomes that it should always be on, that you should always have it with you, answer all calls immediately, or call back within a few minutes. I have noticed that people get annoyed and frustrated when they call someone’s cell phone and it is not answered or they do not get an immediate callback.

There is an explosion of new ways of being in contact, social networking systems such as Twitter and Second Life being just two. I steadfastly refuse to join any of them unless I absolutely have to.

I did join Second Life out of curiosity when it first came out and because Case was getting deeply involved in it, but stopped doing anything with my avatar soon after, thus repeating my unfortunate Facebook experience. I am probably now as much a social pariah on Second Life as I am on Facebook.

I am not a total Luddite who rejects all new technology. If I need something I will use it. Recently I actually initiated a private social networking group on Ning (thanks to help from Heidi) to facilitate the organization of a college reunion, so I can and will use these devices if I feel the need.

I am well aware that I am fighting the tide on this one. Eventually, everyone will be on many social networks with everyone else, each person constantly aware of what other people are doing. And scattered here and there will be these isolated individuals like me who have no clue as to what is happening all around them.

That realization is a little disturbing. I like to think of myself as a social being and the thought that I am actively shunning avenues for being in touch with other people is troubling, suggesting that I am somewhat of a misanthrope. But not really. I do not hate or distrust humankind. And I am also not like Linus of Peanuts fame when he said, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I really do like people and humanity. I just don’t want to be in touch with a lot of them all the time and there does not seem to be any word other than ‘loner’ to describe people like me.

POST SCRIPT: Christmas cheer for the godless

British comedians like Ricky Gervais and Robin Ince have organized a program of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration of Christmas.

[Gervais’s] motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist. “I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don’t have any belief, to show that they’re not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant.”

For Ince and his missionary friends, the word that needs to be spread is that the universe is wondrous even without faith in a divine plan. Dawkins will read from his book Unweaving the Rainbow, “which is about how science makes things more beautiful and more exciting – not less”.

But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?

“If it riles people,” says Ince, “it does so because they’re fools. Anyone who feels we are ‘stealing Christmas away’ would just be half-witted. Some people are desperate to be offended.”

For those who do not know Robin Ince, here is a clip that I have shown before where he compares evolution with creationism and intelligent design.