Sunday, October 07, 2007

Still More on Situational Evil

I'm still reading the Lucifer Effect. It's not exactly the type of book you'd want to skim or just give a rough read. I've been reading a library copy but I think I may go buy a hard copy. I'm having to resist the urge to highlight and make notes in the margin.
As I read I'm becoming increasingly aware of the "situational" forces that work around me. Zimbardo describes several situations where otherwise good people refused to speak up when their own morality was telling them they should. Instead they relied on the judgment of their supposed superiors to make the moral decision for them. If I've learned anything from this book it's that my own silent refusal to respond can and most likely is interpreted as agreement. I've found that since this fact is front and center in my mind that I am increasingly intolerant of immoral and unethical comments. When friends, family members or coworkers make comments that I find morally repugnant I used to lean towards just ignoring them. However, I have since become aware that this passive attitude is only marginally different than an endorsement of their comments.
I've never been good at confrontations. I'm doing my best to figure out how to balance these two conflicting forces inside me. At what point is okay to say "I don't agree and I want no part of this conversation"? And when I do respond is my response proportional to the initial comment? In the past I think I've waited far too long before I made my voice hear and then I respond too strongly. I fear that now I may be reacting to strongly too fast. Be patient with me as I wrestle with this dilemma. I'm working to find a balance that with accomplish both goals, not alienate everybody around me, and yet let them know that there are certain moral and ethical bounds that I will not cross.

I've been especially surprised at the comments I've heard from family and friends about the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
"Well if wearing women’s underwear on you head is torture there are a lot of fraternities that should be shut down too."
"They were just using these Muslims weird beliefs against them." Etc etc.
(I debated posting sevarla of the Abu Ghraib images that were clearly much worse than frat house hazing. I decided against it. if your interested just do a google image search for Abu Ghraib and your see more than you wanted.)
The analogy to a frat house is common one but the two situations are very different on a number of major ways. In a frat house the 'victims' are there because they want to be and are trying to do thing to get into the organization. In Abu Ghraib the victims were prisoners who did not want to be there and wanted to get out of this prison. This twisted "frat house" analogy only holds water if we ignore the conditions of servitude and the desires of the victims. Without these two conditions what's the difference between rape and consensual sex? There is none.
As far as the comment about using their beliefs against them goes, I agree. But it's also worth noting that the guards were also making these prisoners do things that went against their own moral beliefs. That is where they violated not only the morality of the prisoners but their own as well. I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that these soldiers would not want to have the same actions forced upon them.
Most of the comments I've heard defending the guards actions come from people who have done little to no research into what they actually did. Many of the sexually explicit images never made it on the broadcast news. And all too frequently people are just waiting for their talk radio spin doctors to tell them how to believe. So I'm not really surprised that I've heard the "frat house" analogy from more than one source. They all got it from Rush Limbaugh.
I don't believe that we have to behave like a terrorist in order to defend ourselves against them. Zimbardo's book is forcing me to become more vocal in my opposition to the situational forces around me. As he points out it isn't easy to stand up for your personal morality. But I believe that by remaining silent on these issues I become part of the system that is influencing others to do evil things.

Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.
Friedrich Nietzsche


  1. Have you read this article:

    The best line from the article:
    "We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess.

  2. That is a great article! I hope they compile the histories and publish them.

    The other sad fact is the round up of large groups of people hinder the ability of those trying to find information and overload the holding areas beyond capacity physically and mentally of those trying to guard them. Our use of this sweeping method has fostered animosity and fueled the fires of hatred rather than found the answers our government states it's looking for.