Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Milgram Effect

Two weeks ago I talked about unspeakable things. That is, I talked about people who insist on going into the gory details of what I would consider to be unspeakable things. I expected some responses to that, and I was not disappointed.

I didn’t have “time” to distinguish between the types of situations where people might feel obligated to give the gruesome details, and I also didn’t have the time to connect them with what I call the “Milgram Effect.” I’ll do that this week.

I’ve mentioned the Milgram Experiment before, in my entry on “obedience to authority,” but in case you’ve forgotten, let me recap for you:
In response to the recent war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, Yale Psychology professor Stanley Milgram set up an experiment in which he told volunteers that he was testing the effect of electrical shocks on memory. In reality, his goal was to test people’s obedience to authority, even when what they were being asked to do went against their personal morals.
In the original 1961 experiments, only 35% of the volunteers refused to continue administering the shocks (which unbeknownst to them, were fake) after the person in the other room started screaming, while 65% went on to the final 450-volt shock.
Ironically, after he saw how disturbed the first batch of volunteers were at finding what horrible things they were capable of doing, Milgram continued running the experiment with more people; obeying the “authority” of academic inquiry, rather than saying “enough already” to human suffering; and in the TV movie version of this, once he realized what he had done, Milgram was quite distraught.
So what does this have to do with the workshop I went to? It depends on the reason why the speaker decided to take us all the way to “level 11” in hearing the horrible details of what was going on in the Congo.

If the speaker’s goal was simply to educate us as to the horrors going on there, then that goal could’ve been reached by simply telling us that women were being sexually tortured in unspeakable ways, and not citing chapter and bloody verse, while we sat there, flinching, unable to leave, and unable to stop ourselves from hearing.

Instead, the speaker ended up doing a Milgram on us; continuing to “run the experiment,” and giving us more details, despite seeing the obvious pain of the audience, and the person doing the reading. The speaker went all the way to that last 450-volt shock, by forcing us to hear details that 99% of us never need to hear.

The first one or two shocks would’ve been enough for most of us. But according to the people who replied to me, there is a group of people who definitely need that last 450-volt shock, and maybe even higher ones, administered. These people are what we would call “The Deniers.” These are the people who either deny that the Holocaust happened or that it was really that bad. These are the people who make the same denials about other documented and unspeakable cases of man’s inhumanity to man.

Clearly, to a denier, you have to provide all the gory, disgusting, graphic, unspeakable information, not giving them a moment to flinch; in order to make it clear to them that these things did and do happen. But is everyone a denier? By no means, and the people in the workshop that day were not a bunch deniers.

How would I have reacted had I been chosen to read those passages that day? I've thought about this a bit, and I’d like to think that after the second sentence, I’d have to stop and say that I could not and would not read any more to the audience, citing the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, and not inflicting more pain as my reason.

I’d like to think that, but maybe I would “simply follow orders,” and keep reading too.

And I wouldn’t like myself very much when I realized what I’d done.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Unspeakable Things

My wife’s family plays a game that I call “One More Terrible Thing.” It’s not really a game at all, but when the family gets together, talk will inevitably turn to some horrible news story that one of them read or heard about, and then that will remind Cousin Jane about some other tragedy that she now has to talk about, and that will remind Uncle Bob about a horrible thing that he has to tell everyone; and it all goes on in a tragic version of “Can You Top This?”

When the game starts, I leave the room. The tragedies I know about, I prefer to keep to myself; and I don’t want to add any new ones to anyone’s collection.

Why? Have you ever heard the old saying that if I have a good idea and I tell it to you, then we both have a good idea? It means that telling that good idea spreads it. Well, similarly, I believe that the same thing applies to misery; and that spreading a tragic story that you have no real connection to, merely spreads the pain. Why should I tell you about a horrible thing that happened to a friend of mine in Minnesota, just to “make conversation?” Why should I add her misery to what you already have on your plate, and then have you spread it later on to some other totally unrelated person.

Maybe I’m just too sensitive a person, but I really believe in spreading no more misery than is absolutely necessary.

Which brings us to the workshop.

A while ago I was at a workshop in which the speaker asked one of the attendees to read few passages to the audience from a book that described in gruesome detail some of the unspeakably horrible things that are being done by both sides to women in the Congo in the midst of war.

As I sat there listening to a game of “one more terrible thing” that would make my wife’s family sound like pathetic amateurs, I wondered just how much of this detail was necessary for us to hear in order for the speaker to make her point, and spur us to want to change the situation. At what point did it become overkill, making some of us think, “Just kill them all and let God sort them out,” or even to question God’s existence in the first place? And not to try to make our discomfort seem at all equal to the very real pain of the people we were being told about, did giving us all of the gory details simply end up spreading the misery further?

You will notice that I mentioned “unspeakably horrible things” that were being done. I didn’t give you the details, because to my mind, just that phrase should be enough to make you wince at what the possibilities could be, without putting actual images in your head that can never be erased.

I also used that phrase because the things that were read to us that day were indeed unspeakably horrible. As I posted on Facebook later on that day, “We need to know that the Holocaust happened, we don’t all need to know every gruesome detail of what the Nazis did.” To force people to see and hear every detail of what was done is to spread the pain that they inflicted even further.

I believe that there are some evils that should remain unspeakable, unless you have specifically asked for the information, or have a real need for it. I have heard more than I needed to know, and starting with me, it will become unspeakable, so that I don’t spread the pain any further.

And yet, it remains that something does need to be done about the situation in the Congo.