During the Vietnam War, Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, replicated the experience of a prison for a psychology experiment. His student participants were divided into guards and prisoners. The guards were given uniforms and sunglasses. The prisoners were stripped of their clothes and their names.
The experiment had to be stopped in less than a week.
Zimbardo later wrote a book about the Stanford prison experiment called The Lucifer Effect, and he provided his expert testimony in the case of the Abu Ghraib abusers. In short, whenever you allow some people to have absolute power and authority over other people, you will have dehumanization, abusive behavior and acts of evil. Zimbardo outlined his ingredients for how good people are able to do bad things. They are deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modeling, moral disengagement and group conformity
In the past couple of weeks, I have witnessed a lot of moral disengagement and group conformity. I have heard some shocking excuses for the behavior of the police officer that shot Michael Brown. Generally, they go like this: “That’s the way they behave”, “If you try to tackle a cop, you deserve what you get”, “They don’t care about other people’s stuff. They just want to take everything they can get”. These people laugh at the social media snips they pass around to each other about how any killing of an unarmed black male must be just an excuse to go looting.
It’s disturbing not just because of the content of what “they” are supposed to think, feel and do. It’s disturbing because it usually comes from the mouths of white people that I work with or other white people I used to think were above that kind of talk. And they talk like this to one another because they think it’s Ok. They think that they will not be censured or excluded from polite society for trivializing death or the desecration of a body by leaving it to bake in the summer sun for four hours without the decency of anyone to heap on a sacred handful of soil much less load it into an ambulance.
When I’m just trying to eat my lunch and I hear this kind of justification to treat other people as less than human because everyone is under the impression that it’s OK to behave like we’re back in 1954, well, let’s just say it makes me mad and I lose my appetite. I have to get up and rest my hand on the shoulder of the only other person in the room with a differing opinion and say, “I’m with you. It isn’t decent” and then leave. It just doesn’t seem like enough. It’s not enough.
It’s not just the outrageous treatment of african americans that bothers me. It’s the way we treat anyone who is poor too. Oh, gosh, that means me now. If you’re poor, most people think you did something wrong to get that way. You must have a drinking habit or do drugs even if you don’t or you were lazy at work when you weren’t. It doesn’t matter if the economy sucks or that you were in an industry that was slaughtered. It doesn’t matter that your kid got seriously ill just when your insurance ran out. It doesn’t matter that you graduate with a mountain of student debt during the worst recession since the Great Depression and can’t find a job. It doesn’t matter that so many Americans are enduring the trials of Job, losing their jobs and their houses and their family’s sense of security. All that matters is that some people have now been given permission to kick their fellow citizens when they’re down. That’s enormously satisfying to some people. And when those people get together, they reinforce their belief that they can make themselves feel powerful and good by making others feel powerless and bad.
We may not be anywhere near as destructive and evil as Germans were in the 1930’s. But we’re getting there. You are not safe from evil just because everyone around you is making the same derogatory remarks.
Honor your mayor and keep it peaceful out there tonight while you’re protesting.