Monday, 5 May 2014

Roles, Power and Uniforms

An excerpt from the book Homo Imitans by Leandro Herrero:

The pictures that shocked the world will still be in many people’s minds when the name Abu Ghraib is forgotten. The scenes of Iraqi prisoners and their American custodians made front pages and prime time everywhere. The sense of disgust was universal, but apart from this there was a varied spectrum of reactions. There were the politico-military questions. How on earth could this happen? Were the perpetrators just a few bad apples? How far up the chain of command did it go? There was the socio-political question: to what extent can this type of thing be justified? And there was the plain, ‘normal citizen’ question: how on earth can human beings do this to one another?

Now the blame has gone in several directions, the buck has stopped somewhere, so we are told, and the whole thing will soon more or less evaporate into history. American writer Gore Vidal reacted to the events of 9/11 with a sharp, cynical and otherwise politically incorrect comment: “It will be all over by the Christmas sales.” It didn’t quite happen like that, but he wanted to make the point of just how fragile our collective memory is. The Abu Ghraib saga, I suspect, will be contained one way or another, and soon consigned to the black book of black history. Period. Among the thousands of articles and references relating to Abu Ghraib there was an unpretentious, not terribly prominent and matter-of-fact column published in The New York Times, which revealed that, at least for a tiny sector of the population, these events were no surprise whatsoever. Anybody with a degree in Social Psychology would have said: “Aha! This is Milgram and Zimbardo revisited.” These were the authors of some old psychological experiments that have since been repeated several times. The article mentioned the studies and sought the opinion of people who had taken part.

I referred to Stanley Milgram in a previous article (‘It’s the system, not me’, May 2004). In a nutshell, it involved the citizens of the US town of New Haven who had volunteered to take part in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning. They played the role of teacher, reciting words that the learners had to repeat correctly or receive an electric shock. The intensity of the shock rose with each mistake, and the learners screamed with each increase, eventually pleading with the teachers to stop. But the psychologist directing the experiment encouraged the teachers to continue regardless. Some refused and some carried on to the maximum voltage, which was labelled ‘dangerous’. The proportion of people who continued administering the voltage was 65%. Interestingly, laughter was sometimes the teacher’s first reaction when hearing the learner’s initial discomfort. The catch, as students know and readers of this column will remember, was that the learners were actors.

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