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.

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