March 19, 2010

It takes a special kind of unexamined existence to sit through this segment and not have your head explode.

How many people have heard of the Milgram experiments?

The Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?" In other words, "Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?" Milgram's testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs.

It--along with Jane Elliott's famous "blue eye/brown eye" experiment--were seminal in showing just how easily people could be persuaded to hate and hurt others. I remember seeing a school film on these experiments by a teacher concerned by the "Bomb bomb bomb, Iran" chants students yelled during the Iranian hostage crisis. It has stayed with me how susceptible people could be to suggestions of hate and fear, which may be why I object so much to the fear-mongering of the Republicans in the last ten years.

This week, French documentarians decided to update the Milgram experiment for the 21st century: in the guise of a TV game show, contestants were encouraged to administer what appeared to be near-lethal electrical shocks to rival contestants.

Although unaware that the contestants were actors and there was no electrical current, 82% of participants in the Game of Death agreed to pull the lever.

Programme makers say they wanted to expose the dangers of reality TV shows.

They say the documentary shows how many participants in the setting of a TV show will agree to act against their own principles or moral codes when ordered to do something extreme.

I think there are more parallels to be drawn beside the dangers of reality shows, although I'd be thrilled to see fewer of those on TV too. What was amazing was just how horrified Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer were at the thought of people cheering for the torture of another individual. Glennzilla:

Speaking as employees of the corporation that produced the highly influential, torture-glorifying 24, and on the channel that has churned out years worth of pro-torture "news" advocacy, the anchors were particularly astonished that television could play such a powerful role in influencing people's views and getting them to acquiesce to such heinous acts. Ultimately, they speculated that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority, just like many of them submitted to and even supported the Nazis, they explained.

Yeah, those Frenchies...they're all weak-minded and easily-led sheep, willing to compromise their ethical and moral codes by authority figures. Go figure. Again, that the cognitive dissonance doesn't cause their heads to explode is simply stunning.

(T)he connection just never occurred to them. They just prattled away -- shocked, horrified and blissfully un-self-aware -- about the evils of torture and mindless submission to authority and the role television plays in all of that.

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