Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Milgram Experiment

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.

Person-denying politics

There are elections happening this week.  The European Parliament has representatives from all 28 member countries, and they meet regularly in Brussels and (for reasons nobody can quite remember) also in Strasbourg.  This week, we are electing people to sit in this parliament and to ignore us for the next few years until they want to be re-elected again.

This is particularly significant this time around, because the UK Independence Party have been making waves, appearing in the news and, generally, defining the policy areas people are talking most about.  Unfortunately, they appear to be a party of bigots and extremists, sexists, racists, homophobes, hypocrites and idiots.  This won’t come as a surprise to most people, after all, UKIP is a political party, and political parties have a habit of being full of politicians.  I have often said that the main problem with democracy in the current age is that, no matter whom you vote for, you end up with a politician.

UKIP’s brand of politicians are particularly special, however.  It seems that the party is utterly loaded down with people who think that the world is scary and the only way to cope is to stop talking to those nasty foreign people (and, by “foreign”, they seem to mean anyone who looks a bit different or sounds a bit different from British-born, English-speaking white men), cut ourselves off from the European Union, and move on to burning at the stake everyone whose skin is a bit brown, whose religion isn’t some kind of wooly, xenophobic Christianity and people who talk anything other than English on trains.

As the New Statesman article cited above suggests, one of the powerful things about UKIP’s argument is that it sounds utterly ridiculous to most of us, so we think that everyone else is going to think that it is ridiculous too.  The problem here is that their argument is not based around logical argument or, indeed, around rhetorical persuasion: it’s based around generating an emotional reaction.  If you can get the audience to concentrate on some kind of external threat, higher brain functions tend to be overridden by the fear response, that gut survival instinct that served us so well when we lived in caves, surrounded by wild creatures with big teeth and sharp claws.

For all that modern politics resembles the struggle for survival against the odds that characterised stone-age mankind, we are not facing such dangers today, and the stakes are much, much lower.  If I am on a train and there is a group of people nearby talking a language I do not understand, I remain alive, I remain able to breathe, I even remain able to go home at the end of the day and kiss my children and my spouse.  I might wonder what they are talking about.  If I am paranoid, I might wonder that they are talking about me, and that they might be saying unkind things about me.  The problem with that fear, however, is that it is completely unfounded.  For all I know, they might be discussing the Brazilian football league, or the price and variety of cheese in Cambridge’s open-air market.  It represents a bizarre kind of arrogance for me to assume that they are talking about me at all, and an extreme insecurity on my part to assume that, should they be doing so, that they will only be saying rude things about me.

Here’s a theory: we automatically assume that other people are a bit like ourselves.  If I am the kind of person who will say rude things about other groups, talking loudly with my friends on the train, I will naturally assume that a group talking loudly on a train in a language I don’t understand will be saying rude things about me.  This is the way fear breeds fear and we end up barricading ourselves in our little ghettos, literally terrified that “they” are out to get “us”.  It’s the kind of talk that fills my mind with the image of a child hiding under to duvet, scared of the mosters and bogeymen that lurk in every shadow.  They’re don’t exist, but are terrifying nonetheless.

At the more extreme end is Britain First, who seem to have cropped up on Facebook recently.  I’m not going to link to them from here, but they are easy enough to find.  The kind of stuff they are posting on their Facebook page is utterly despicable.  Of course, Facebook have decided that posting pictures and text boasting of their uninvited entry into mosques, wearing shoes and handing out British military-issue bibles does not violate their community standards.  Their image of the crusades, saying how the church had got it right back when it sent wave after wave of armed men to slaughter Muslims who had the audacity to live somewhere.  Their supporters call Muslims “dogs”.  They use the name and images of the late Fusilier Lee Rigby, in spite of the hurt that this use causes to his family.  Yesterday, I noticed that their FB page had a photograph of an IRA parade, stating that they would love to be a bit like them.  They also posted the suggestion, apparently without irony, that all terrorists are Muslim (the IRA was a terrorist organisation operating in Ireland and the UK during The Troubles, and was not known for having many Muslim members).  And, of course, should anyone post a comment that disagrees with them, they delete the comment and block the poster.

On some subjects, the internet is a sewer, however, and Britain First appears to have floated to the surface recently.  In terms of person-denying rhetoric, I haven’t seen much worse in recent months.

It begs the question, I suppose, what are we going to do about it?

In short, I have no idea.  They claim to be Christian, maybe we should follow the Christian message that we have love for one another.

“What is it?” (part 2)

In my last piece, I said I’d get onto gender, which is distinct from sex: sex being the term used generally to describe what a person’s body looks like, encompassing physiology, anatomy and general appearance; gender, on the other hand, is all about how it feels to live in that body.  It is, quite literally, all in the mind.

Like bodies are sexed, minds are gendered.  We experience the world through our bodies, which are male, female, or other.  Our bodies feed this experience into our minds, which are gendered, male, female or other.

Most people’s bodies are unambiguously male or female.  Most people’s minds are unambiguously male or female.  Most people’s sex matches their gender.

We are taught this from an early age.  There are boys and there are girls.  This is called the gender binary, and it is the thing that we know to be just the way things are.  Some of us know this so hard that we are unkind to people who don’t match what we expect.  This is a shame.

Because, once you stop laughing at someone, you can realise that a whole range of genders lies just beneath the surface.  A whole gender spectrum.  Some names for this are gender nonconforming, gender creative and gender variant: these are usually applied to people who see the world of boy and girl as, purely and simply, too restrictive for them.  The gender binary is incapable of representing who they are as people.  Some Native American peoples have chosen, as a culture and society, to acknowledge the non-binary nature of gender and have a third gender option, sometimes called “two-spirit”, because the person is said to embody the spirit of maleness and the spirit of femaleness.

There are some people who do adhere to the gender binary, yet find that their binary-gendered mind does not match at all their binary-sexed body.  To limit the term transgender to these particular people is to deny the word much of the expressive power it has gained in recent years, but many transgender people do see themselves fitting into the gender binary, just not on the side the bodies they were born with would suggest.

Also on the gender spectrum, we encounter tomboys: girls who prefer wearing trousers and climbing trees, and tomgirls: boys who prefer wearing dresses and drawing butterflies.  It is often said that tomboys have it easy, but this in only true to an extent.  Grown-ups will laugh and praise a 6-year-old girl who is exploring in the mud with her bothers; they’re just as hard on the 12-year-old girl with grease on her face and a toolbelt around her waist as they are on the equivalent 12-year-old boy getting a mani-pedi in his sparkly new skirt.

Facebook hit the headlines recently because they (well, if you select “US English” as your language option) expanded the list of genders you can select.  In addition to “male” and “female”, they added “custom”, which has 56 different options that seem to cover a good range of the gender spectrum.  This is yet to propagate to their other language offerings (including “British English”).

So… how does it work?  Well, nobody really knows.  What is clear is that the relationship between genes, hormones and other environmental factors is far more complex than anybody ever thought.  Personally, I think that a cases that made the news in recent years (and others like it) suggest that we can probably rule out the effects of nurture.

Nicole’s story matches many others I have read about: a child is pretty certain about their gender sometime between the ages of 2 and 4.  At this stage, they haven’t made any links between their gender and the sex of their body: they simply don’t see the relevance of their body shape when they know what gender they are.  Usually, at this age, they are waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them.  For many people, they discover that the rest of the world isn’t listening.  A growing body of evidence suggests that it’s the child who has it right, however, and attempts by others to force the child into a specific gender role can have devastating consequences that include risky sexual practices, drug use and suicide.

In some ways, a child who knows they are transgender at an early age is easier for parents to cope with than one who is gender nonconforming.  What parents of children who are undeclared need to live with is constant uncertainty.  For some, their children will have boy days, girl days and neither days; for some, the children will present as one gender most of the time, and another at other times.  For some, the child will appear fine in one gender before flipping suddenly into another gender role.  This leaves the parents reeling, knowing that the only certainty they have is that their child will keep them guessing.  This can get particularly stressful as puberty approaches because the changes that puberty causes to a body are not reversible.  We have treatments that can direct a male body down female puberty and vice versa, but these have permanent effects; equally, leaving a body to direct puberty on its own has equally permanent effects.  Parents want the best for their children, and parents of children who might be transgender need to have a plan, which is a hard ask when the child won’t sit still long enough.

Of course, there are people who are happy being gender-ambiguous, and are happy enough with their body configuration that they don’t want medical intervention.  In fact, about 80% of cases of childhood gender-nonconformity will resolve as the child reaches puberty, and they will proceed through whichever puberty their body drives naturally, and will become adults at ease with their bodies.

I take my hat off to these parents (and others), who walk the line of uncertainty, always ready to fight for their children, but trying at the same time to let the children decide whom they wish to be.

And how does all this link to the title of my blog?  Well, as I said in my introduction, people of all genders deserve to be treated as people first, and we’d all do well to remember this as we go about or lives.

“What is it?” (part 1)

The year is 2007, and I’m at the supermarket checkout with my hugely pregnant wife.  Our first child sits in the pushchair as we unload our shopping and get ready for the assistant to start doing the barcode beeping thing.

We’ve had this question before, and will have it again in the future.  The assistant seems to believe that she’s making polite conversation.  I bristle.  It just gets to me.  The person in my wife’s womb hasn’t even drawn breath yet and this other person we hardly know is, in effect, asking us “please describe your unborn child’s genitals to me so that I may categorise it neatly in my head.”

“A human,” I reply, attempting to remain polite, yet also trying to hint that I am unwilling to disclose this information (I could have said “we don’t know”, which turns out to be acceptable, but I don’t like to lie and I’m never shy of driving home a point when I’m annoyed).

“You know what I mean,” the persistent assistant replies, safe in the knowledge that she has the right to ask the question and sure that the whole of British society will support her continued quest to drag this information from us.

“A baby,” I reply, brightly, still unwilling to participate in the blunt categorisation of my beloved-yet-still-unmet child and, frankly, not really caring that the checkout person is now getting upset with my stubbornness.  She forges on.

“I mean is it a boy or a girl?”  Triumph suffuses her face as she has finally pinned me down with a direct question that I now cannot avoid.  She reminds me a little of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge and I start to wonder if this starter-for-ten is worth all the hassle.

In reality, I usually cave at this point, acknowledging that we’d already wasted far too much time on trivia and that continuing refusal, on my part, to answer her question would lead to raised voices and umbrage all round.  In my head, though, the conversation takes a different turn.

“Probably,” my imagined self replies, returning the Paxmanesque smug half-smile.  The imagined assistant, of course, doesn’t realise that my my reply is completely accurate, that the child will, probably, be a boy or a girl.  She has no idea that a small minority of babies are born intersex.  She appears not to subscribe to the Monty Python theory of determining a newborn’s gender.

“Look,” the assistant continues, in my mind, “I just asked you to describe your unborn child’s genitals to me, and I think you are being entirely unreasonable in refusing to do so.  I mean, what can possibly be more public than the contents of a minor’s underwear.  I have the right to know and you have a duty to tell me in order to resolve this increasingly awkward and highly un-English situation.”

You see, Monty Python had it right.  It is a little early to be imposing roles on my child.  He/she (here we see that we have a gaping hole in our language: there is no singular, gender-neutral pronoun that doesn’t also carry the personhood-denying connotations of “it”).  The shop assistant is merely making polite conversation and, cutting her some slack, it is polite conversation in our society.  She doesn’t intend for her words to be annoying, offensive or dehumanising.  She doesn’t believe that her question is in any way controversial.  She can see that her customer is pregnant and knows that most expecting couples are more than happy to talk about the exciting waiting game that pregnancy embodies, and the presence or absence of a penis on the ultrasound is one of the very few characteristics that people can be relatively sure of, after that detailed 20-week scan.

Although the question is asked a million times a day and most people will smile and gladly reply “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy”, what they’re actually saying is “it’s a guess.”

Sex is more complex than that.  People generally assume that what we’re told about how babies are made is universally true.  We all know that, at the point of conception, an egg will be carrying a single X chromosome (and 22 friends), and a single sperm will fuse with it, bringing with it a single X or Y chromosome (and 22 friends), to yield a 46-chromosome genome with an XX or XY at position 23.  From this point on, the child’s destiny is set in stone.  XX means that the child will be a girl, will grow up to be a woman who will marry a man and have lots of babies.  XY means that the child will be a boy, will grow up to be a man who will marry a woman who will have lots of babies.

Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Except for the cases where there was a copying error in the cell-division process that made the egg, the sperm or both.  Observed genetic variations include (but are not limited to) X, XXX, XXY, XYY, XXXY, and XXXX.  And that’s just the deviations from the normal XX and XY.  There are also tetragametic chimeras where, in the opposite process from the making of identical twins, two nonidentical, fertilised eggs will fuse to make a single embryo that consists of two distinct genomes.  In 50% of cases, these genomes will be mixed XX and XY.

In addition to genetic characteristics, there is also the endocrine system.  In the absence of testosterone, every human foetus will develop into a girl.  Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is a condition where a growing baby’s body is less sensitive than usual to the presence of testosterone, or where the body completely ignores testosterone.  These babies will tend to be born either clearly intersex or obviously female, in spite of having (internal) testes and no uterus.  On the other side, there is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, where the adrenal glands aren’t quite right, and cause an XX person to produce far more testosterone than is normal to find in a girl, which can cause the foetus to develop to look exactly like an XY male.

There are various other routes by which an XX person can grow and develop to look like a man, and by which an XY person can grow to look like a woman.  No wonder sex testing in sport is quite such a thorny issue.

And this discussion is limited merely to physical differences in the bodies of people.  It says nothing about whether or not they see themselves as men, women or neither.  I’ll save the discussion of gender for another day.