In July 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments that would have a profound impact on the field of psychology and send shock-waves through contemporary society that still can be felt today.
Known simpy as the Milgram Experiment, the test put an ordinary member of the public in a room with a machine with lots of buttons and dials and an impressive-looking man in a white coat. In a separate room, was another person who was, supposedly, attached to the machine. The member of the public was asked to give the other person a set of simple word tests and to press buttons on the machine if he got the answer wrong or refused to answer. The person believed that the machine was administering ever-increasing electric shocks. If the person was reluctant to press more buttons, in response to the sound of screaming and pleading from the other room, the man in the white coat responded by urging that the experiment proceed.
If you’ll excuse the expression, the results were shocking. It turns out that 65% of the participants administered the maximum shock (or what they believed to be the maximum shock, at least), even in the face of crying, pleading, screaming, apparent unconsciousness and/or death, simply because there was an authority figure urging them on.
According to a YouTube video I saw (incidentally worth a watch for its own sake), results varied according to whether or not the person administering the shocks could see the guy supposedly receiving them, with the most deadly results being produced by people who could not see the shockee, and the clear conclusion that, if we cannot see the people affected by our actions, 65% of us are willing to kill someone.
A related experiment took place in August 1971, at Stanford, under Professor Philip Zimbardo, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In it, students were arbitrarily assigned to one of two groups: one group became prison guards and the other became prisoners. Over the course of a few days, the students played out their roles in a “prison” constructed from a selection of basement offices in a Standford University building. Even though the roles of prisoner and guard were selected randomly, and the students knew that the roles had been selected randomly, role-play quickly turned serious and the guards’ regime turned brutal, using divide-and-conquer tactics and methods that would fall under the modern definition of torture to subdue and humiliate the prisoners.
There are many lessons available from these two experiments, but the things that float to the surface for me are that we are more capable than we think of inflicting terrible suffering on people, particularly people we can’t see, and that good people can be led by a group into performing, or at least tolerating, inhuman cruelty to people from a group considered “other”.
Part of the justification for the guards’ behaviour towards the prisoners was that the prisoners belonged to a group with lower status than the guards; that they somehow “deserved” the treatment they were getting. Few of us will deliberately inflict cruelty on members of our own group; what the Stanford experiment shows is that it takes only a few days, given the right circumstances, for people to turn into monsters, or to permit monstrous behaviour from members of one’s peer group.
This behaviour troubles me, particularly in the context of this blog, as we live in a society that routinely defines groups as “other”, “outside” or “lower”. Disabled people, coloured people, gay people, transgender people, Muslims, fat people, women, anyone, for that matter, who does not conform to what society has accepted as “normal”. Normal, in contemporary Western society, is white, middle-class, straight, “Christian (Protestant)”, cisgender and male. Women are permitted limited entry if they conform to the mass-media version of “beautiful” and keep their mouths shut. Anyone outside the privileged group had better keep their heads down, because it is entirely acceptable for the group to treat anyone outside it as non-people, as scum to be cleaned off the main group’s boots. Another name for this class of behaviours is tribalism.
At the forefront of my mind, as I discuss this, is the forthcoming meeting of Catholic bishops at the Vatican (scheduled for October), on the subject of marriage and family. It worries me, somewhat, that a group of celibate old men are going to gather in a place where they can’t see anyone else and discuss policy that is going to affect, directly, the lives of a billion people across the globe. None of the people who will meet in that room has children, none of them has the first idea what it’s really like to live in a family in the 21st century, none of them even has the first clue what it’s like to be married to another person.
In light of the research outlined above, I think I am right to be worried about what might come out of the synod. Here is a group who cannot see and cannot hear the people who will be affected by their decisions. Here is a group insulated from outside influence who will be acting together. Here is a group well used to exercising authority over others. Here is a group who is not used to being told that they have got anything wrong (preferring to point out error in others). I think we have established exactly where a meeting like this could lead.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has called us to knock on our bishops’ doors, to help them to be better pastors to their flocks. There is hope yet.