Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Hola mi Gente,

I have to posts in mind: The biological hate crime in Flint, MI which has resulted in the poisoning of mostly people of color and one on the Bernie/ Hillary race.

I have a deep interest in moral reasoning, obedience, and authoritarianism because I have personally experienced what happens when these things go awry or are abused.

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A field lieutenant with prisoners picking cotton at Cummins Prison Farm in 1975.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

 -- Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority

Some of my work involves public speaking. Most of this work involves other professionals, but I am asked to address young people in school settings. A colleague once asked me to substitute for her at an elementary school. The topic was substance abuse and she had a plan all worked out. Of course, I discarded her curriculum and proceeded to wing it. LOL!

I’ve always been interested in group behavior and the following is how I “teach” about drug abuse.

Please do not try this at home, you’re not trained, and you can do more harm than good and might take your eye out!

I wait until students file into the class, those that are “late” (they are not late. I make an arbitrary decision to make them late) are asked to wait right outside the door. Before all this, I have taken the liberty of drawing three lines on the blackboard. One line is obviously shorter than the rest. It’s not blatantly shorter, but short enough to notice upon close inspection…

Before I allow the “late” students in, I address the class and tell them that they will be my co-conspirators in an experiment on social behavior. I point to the lines and ask, “Which of these lines is the shortest?” Of course, a few students raise their hands and correctly identify the shorter line. Once a consensus has been reached, I tell the students that I am now going to allow the “late” students in and ask them the same question. However, the class is instructed to say that the shortest line is not the shortest line, that it is, in fact, the same size as the other lines.

I allow the “late” students in and proceed to ask them the same question. Again, the late students are all in agreement as to which is the shortest line. Then I ask my co-conspirators and one by one, they all say that none of the lines is shortest, that they are, in fact, the same size.

I then ask the late students again, “Are you sure this line is the shortest?” What happens is that one by one, the late students experience pressure to fall in line with the consensus of the majority. I mean, conformity is somewhat hardwired into us as part of an adaptation for survival. The group is a powerful influence in our behavior. Back to my unfortunate students: Some will stick to their guns, but most will break under the pressure of the power of the group. At this point, I disclose our little conspiracy and then turn to the class and say, “This is what peer pressure feels like.”

The rest of the workshop is dedicated to exploring those feelings, and how that pressure can be used as a way to do almost anything against our will -- drugs, sex, violence, voting for conservatives, etc.

It’s a powerful way to illustrate the power of the group. Most people will tell you that they would never succumb to the group. However, studies show that the vast majority of you will obey authority even when it goes counter to your moral code.

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Obedience to Authority

Many of you already know I work with formerly or currently incarcerated men and women. I was formerly incarcerated, but I came about this work more through flow than an actual conscious decision. In fact, I was initially reluctant to work with this population because 1) It’s an extremely challenging group to work with, and 2) even those motivated to change face huge obstacles to successful social reintegration. However, nowhere is this issue of obedience to authority more clearly illustrated than in prison settings. One experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment, led by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, had to be abandoned because within a couple of days, randomly picked normal college students role playing corrections officers were abusing the students role-playing incarcerated persons, and the students role-playing the incarcerated were plotting a prison breakout. Totally engrossing study.

However, the study which I have found the most interesting is one you may have heard about. Anyone who has taken any psych 101 course will have heard of Stanley Milgram, who shocked the world in the early 1960s with his discoveries at Yale while conducting what became known as the obedience experiments. In brief, he found that average, presumably normal, groups of residents of New Haven, Connecticut, would readily inflict very painful, and even deadly, electric shocks on an innocent victim whose actions did not merit such harsh treatment.

The experiment, supposedly dealing with the effects of punishment on learning, required that the subjects shock a learner every time he made an error on a verbal learning task, and to increase the intensity of the shock in 15-voly steps, from 15 to 450 volts, on each subsequent error (the “shock machine” was a fake, with actors playing the tortured learners in a separate room). The results: 65% of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end, simply because he commanded them to.

Groundbreaking and controversial, these experiments have had enduring relevance, because they demonstrated with stunning clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced by an authority figure to act destructively, even in the absence of physical force, and that it didn’t take evil or aberrant individuals to carry out mass actions that were immoral and inhumane.

Milgram’s findings have had the effect of making us more aware of our malleability in the face of social pressure, in the process making us reshape our individual morality. While I’m sure most of you reading this would like to think that when confronted with a similar moral dilemma we would act in line with our conscience. However, Milgram’s experiments taught us – in shocking, irrefutable detail – that, in a concrete situation containing powerful social pressures, our moral sense can become trampled underfoot.

And this is how evil happens, we allow it to happen through acquiescence, obedience, and not wanting to “rock the boat.” This how Black and Brown children get gunned down by police or corrections officers brutalize incarcerated people. This is how the twin Black and Jewish holocausts and the genocide of /First Nation are allowed to happen.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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