Saturday, July 26, 2008

sheep II

This is about how normal people come to commit torture, genocide, and a multitude of lesser sins when circumstances are created where those actions are normal. It's taken slightly abridged from Phillip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect, pp 273-275, bold emphasis mine.

Ten Lessons From the Milgram Studies: Creating Evil Traps for Good People

Let's outline some of the procedures in this research paradigm that seduced many ordinary citizens to engage in this apparently harmful behavior. In doing so, I want to draw parallels to compliance strategies used by "influence professionals" in real-world settings, such as salespeople, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, and others. There are ten methods we can extract from Milgram's paradigm for this purpose:

1. Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual's behavior in pseudolegal fashion. (In Milgram's experiment, this was done by publicly agreeing to accept the tasks and the procedures.)

2. Giving participants meaningful roles to play ("teacher," "learner") that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.

3. Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. Also, systems control people by making their rules vague and changing them as necessary but insisting that "rules are rules" and thus must be followed.

4. Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action (from "hurting victims" to "helping the experimenter," punishing the former for the lofty goals of scientific discovery)--replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised.

5. Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes: others will be responsible, or the actor won't be held liable. (In Milgram's experiment, the authority figure said, when questioned by any "teacher," that he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the "learner.")

6. Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy "foot in the door" that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures, and leads down a slippery slope. (In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts.)

7. Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one's most recent prior action. "Just a little bit more." (By increasing each level of aggression in gradual steps of only 15 volt increments, over the thirty switches, no new level of harm seemed like a noticeable difference from the prior level to Milgram's participants.)

8. Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure (the researcher, in Milgram's study) from initially "just" and reasonable to "unjust" and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience (and it is part of many "date rape" scenarios and a reason why abused women stay with abusing spouses).

9. Making the "exit costs" high and making the process of exiting difficult by allowing verbal dissent (which makes people feel better about themselves) while insisting on behavioral compliance.

10. Offering an ideology, or a big lie, to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram's research this came in the form of providing an acceptable justification, or rationale, for engaging in the undesirable action, such as that science wants to help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology experiments, this tactic is known as the "cover story" because it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which might be challenged because they do not make sense on their own. the real-world equivalent is known as an "ideology." Most nations relay on an ideology, typically "threats to national security," before going to war or to suppress dissident political opposition. When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms to a government that offers them that exchange. Erich Fromm's classic analysis Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power: namely, the claim that they will be able to provide security in exchange for citizens giving up their freedoms, which will give them the ability to control thing better.

Such procedures are utilized in varied influence situations where those in authority want others to do their bidding but know that few would engage in the "end game" without first being properly prepared psychologically to do the "unthinkable." In the future, when you are compromising position where your compliance is at stake, thinking back to those stepping stones to mindless obedience may enable you to step back and not go all the way down the path--their path. A good way to avoid crimes of obedience is to assert one's personal authority and always take full responsibility for one's actions.

P.S. On an entirely unrelated note--happy birthday to Tony and Toad. :)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

no, really

This was written in response to
I'm very fond of wrongplanet as an interactive set of writing prompts. . . it's full of charming and stunningly opinionated people, some of whom are quite smart.

With the understanding that things can indeed be blown out of proportion, creating an unfair and legislatively hostile environment for men, I submit my bid that sexual harassment is a real and serious problem.

One of my tutors when I got my CELTA certification told me about the harassment she experienced fully veiled as an English teacher in the middle east. Recalling the coupling of mandatory veiling and gender segregation (implying woman's responsibility for ambient male lust and failure to restrain themselves) with pervasive, constant, extreme harassment was clearly still difficult for her more than twenty years after the fact. I believe two thirds.

I think a the threatening/blaming environment sexual harassment creates for women is probably not uncommon around the globe. It was rampant at the public high school I attended. At the start of each school year we spend days reviewing a ream of paperwork about the behavior, objects, and language that weren't allowed in school, as they would be disruptive to the learning process.

For a full year, there was a boy in the lunch hour I was required to attend who would sit near me and spew graphic, violent, sexually demeaning language directed at (and often about) me for the entire period. The teachers, who guarded the door three feet away against anyone's exit, would respond to my complaints with "ignore him and he'll leave you alone" or "boys will be boys."

I didn't attend my senior prom because as a preface, all seniors were required to attend an assembly devoted to telling the girls how to dress for the event--how, if you bend over and we can see everything, your neckline is too low. Anti-social being that I was, I sat alone in the back, which worked fine until a group of boys came and sat directly behind me. They decided to amuse themselves by laughing loudly close to my ears, closer and closer till I could feel their breath on my neck. Ignoring them didn't work; asking them to stop didn't work. I was not permitted by the rules of the place to get up and move, and indeed there was a teacher/guard only a few feet away.

Telling them to shut the f**k up and leave me alone didn't work either. When they started reaching over my shoulder and grabbing my shirt, I stood, crumpled the paper I was holding, and threw it with forceful impotence at the nearest offender at hand. For some reason this caught the attention of our jailer, who also wanted to know why I was about to leave unless someone physically restrained me. She berated me for having thrown the paper--if not for that, she could have done something about their behavior. (even today, I can't help but think--WTF?)

As an adult, I've faced incidents that came upon me for such un-toward actions as walking down my quiet, college town street at night (followed slowly by a carload of shouting men) or answering my phone. . . incidents that were not just annoying, uncomfortable, or invasive, but which inspired substantial and legitimate fear.

While I don't feel I should have to point this out, I am not spectacularly beautiful, nor do I dress immodestly. All of these incidents took place with strangers. This isn't about flirtation; it's about some combination of pigheaded boorishness and casual abuse of power. I suspect that in the times when harassment runs the other way along the gender gradient, the causes are the same.

The most insidious part of this scenario by far is the strong underlaying message--that a woman's place is to be a good sport, to ignore it so that it will go away, to let boys be boys. We have those reams of paperwork everyone hates, but they exist to be hated and maybe ignored--except by wounded men who complain at having lost the freedom to tell their co-workers that that's a nice sweater.

If you are one of those men, well meaning, possibly just unaware, I am sorry that harassment legislation has made your social burden greater. I still feel the need to beg of you the following:

Please, be a gentleman. Don't complain. It doesn't take many bad assholes to create an environment where (in one of many possible contexts for an example) it's not paranoia to wonder if I've been hired because my boss likes looking at me, or if I'll be fired should I complain about his frequent "friendly" compliments. Competing on equal grounds that are all about competence is not as simple a problem as it may first appear, and particularly for those who really don't want to rock the boat--most people--legislative protections are not nearly as strong as they appear.

And when you flirt--and I hope you do, because flirting can be fantastic, even as an end in its self--try to be careful about what it might feel like from the other side. Remember that that threatening atmosphere you've probably never been on the wrong end of can color your gestures into what they were never meant to be. Be non-threatening, be non-invasive, be gentle, and be excruciatingly careful to respect the woman you're trying to seduce. That's probably more what you'd want a relationship to be about anyway.