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I'm in the middle of reading The Lucifer Effect, which details the Stanford Prison Experiment carried out in the 70s, where volunteers were randomly assigned to serve as either prisoners or guards. ("The question there was," he says, "what happens when you put good people in an evil place? We put good, ordinary college students in a very realistic, prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. We dehumanized the prisoners, gave them numbers, and took away their identity. We also deindividuated the guards... translated the anonymity of Lord of the Flies into a setting where we could observe exactly what happened from moment to moment.")

The experiment was planned and executed by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist in Stanford University. He wanted to prove that good & evil were situational rather than intrinsic attributes, that under the right external conditions everyone was capable of both the most compassionate & most brutal acts. (I began to investigate what specific kinds of situational variables or processes could make someone step across that line between good and evil. We all like to think that the line is impermeable—that people who do terrible things like commit murder, treason, or kidnapping are on the other side of the line—and we could never get over there. We want to believe that we're with the good people. My work began by saying, no, that line is permeable. The reason some people are on the good side of the line is that they've never really been tested. They've never really been put in unusual circumstances where they were tempted or seduced across that line.)

Reading the book, what I was most horrified by weren't the things the guards did to the prisoners, but that the experiment was allowed to go on as long as it did, that Zimbardo knew everything that was going on as it was going on, and yet for five days he did nothing to stop the escalating cycle of degradation the prisoners were subjected to, and probably wouldn't have stopped it when he did if his girlfriend hadn't visited and been completely appalled by what she saw.

As he said himself: "There are stunning parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment and what happened at Abu Ghraib, where some of the visual scenes that we have seen include guards stripping prisoners naked, putting bags over heads, putting them in chains, and having them engage in sexually degrading acts." These things and more also happened in the Stanford Prison Experiments, and he not only created the conditions that allowed them to happen but was right there when they were happening. He was the ultimate authority there, he was the one who set the rules, and not only that, but he had studied situations like this, knew more than anyone else the psychology of it, and yet he was more concerned with science than the human beings that were abused right in front of him, more concerned with proving his theories than the degrading, dehumanizing acts that were being carried out that allowed him to do so, and it's just. Why wasn't he punished? Why hasn't he faced any consequences for this, any lawsuits, being disbarred from the American Psychological Association, anything? Instead he seems to have benefitted, becoming president of the APA, one of the most well-known and respected researchers in the field.

It does not surprise me that the guards did what they did, because even before reading the book I agreed with the thesis. But it shocks me that, as their teacher, as the one person who should have known better, Zimbardo not only allowed but also implicitly approved of all the actions of the prison guards. And now he is speaking out against the current administration about what happened in Abu Ghraib, saying that it is more their fault for creating an environment that allowed the abuses to occur, for implicitly condoning those abuses, that they should be on trial and face the consequences of what they did. And I agree with this analysis, but. What about him? What consequences has he ever faced? And he was right there, instead of thousands of miles away, and morever, as a psychologist and someone who had studied this he should have known better.

That's the one thing that I can't let go. It wasn't an esoteric moral debate, the question of good and evil, right and wrong. It was something that he'd spent his life studying, and he still completely failed the test, and instead of being punished was rewarded for his failure and is now going around lecturing others about what they should or shouldn't have done, which strikes me as despicably hypocritical.

And, even today, Zimbardo defends his experiment, the lengths he let it go to, by saying the benefits gained about our understanding of human behaviour and how we can improve society should out balance the distress caused by the study. So, it's not just okay to cause the harm and degradation to another person, but it's actual a noble, worthwhile endeavor that will benefit all of society. Which brings up the question, why stop the experiments at all? He should've let them continue for weeks, months, so we could fully explore all the depths that humans can sink to. It's okay as long as it's for the greater good of society, right?

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The Power of Nightmares is a 3-part BBC series which I'd heard rumblings about a year ago but never gotten around to seeing. Kind of had to watch it now because it's by Adam Curtis, the director of The Century of Self, who I'm disturbingly close to idolizing.

It is, wow, probably one of the most controversial series I've ever watched, and sparked off a huge debate in the UK when it first aired (you can read some of the responses bbc received here). The director said in a Guardian interview: "If a bomb goes off, the fear I have is that everyone will say, 'You're completely wrong,' even if the incident doesn't touch my argument. This shows the way we have all become trapped, the way even I have become trapped by a fear that is completely irrational."

The series talks about the rise of the neo-conservative and islamic movements as a reaction against liberalism, pointing out the many parallels between the two, and how one tactic of the neo-conservatives has been to (knowingly! they are so machiavellian that I must admire them) create a boogeyman that people can rally against. Communism was the first boogeyman and Al-Qaeda is the second.

As the Guardian article says: The Power of Nightmares seeks to overturn much of what is widely believed about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The latter, it argues, is not an organised international network. It does not have members or a leader. It does not have "sleeper cells". It does not have an overall strategy. In fact, it barely exists at all, except as an idea about cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence. (I recommend reading the whole article - it gives a great overview of what that part of the series is about.) Curtis gives a lot of evidence for this, none of it easily dismissed. And, just to clarify, the series isn't claiming that there isn't terrorism, or that terrorism isn't dangerous. It's just saying that terrorism is, in reality, dozens of separate groups sharing this one common idea. (And I think that it's the idea that is the most dangerous thing, because you can't kill it by killing people, for more will just rise to replace them, and as long as people persist in seeing it as a vast unified global conspiracy, a war that can be won solely through guns, it'll always be a threat. So, in my no-doubt not-fully-informed view, what we need are ideas to kill the idea.)

ANYWAY. The most interesting part of the series for me wasn't the revelation about Al Qaeda that came in part three that got everyone up in arms, but seeing how the neo-conservative movement came about, the ideas of Leo Strauss that shaped it. I'll talk more about that later when I'm not pressed for time. For now, some quotes from the last episode that intrigued me (why is it that I only remember to take notes once a series is almost over? ^^;;):

Read more... )
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Just finished watching the BBC documentary The Century of Self. I'd heard most of the ideas before, but not all together and presented and like this. And, do you ever have moments when things just click, and stuff that had been puzzling you forever suddenly makes perfect sense? That's how I felt watching this. It's such a penetrating analysis of American and later British consumer culture, the forces and ideas that moved it, made it what it is today, of why people think like they do, and it had these moments when I was caught short, things that I'd taken for granted revealed to be mostly propaganda.

Watch this if you get the chance. The file quality & graphics aren't the best (they keep on using the same two shots of Freud over and OVER again, and there are these four or five closeups of skyscrapers that make up a quarter of the movie, set to a background of REALLY MENACING music), but I love the way it talks about ideas and how they mutated, can't recommend it highly enough for that.

These quotes are from the conclusion of the series, Eight Men Slipping Wine:

In 1939, Edward Bernays* created a vision of the future world in which the consumer was king. It was at the World's Fair in New York, and Bernays called it DemocroCity. It was one of the earliest and most dramatic portrayals of a consumer democracy, a society in which the needs and desires of the individuals were read and fulfilled by business and the free markets.


There was this sort of notion that the free market was something that was not guided by ideologies or by political power, it was something that was simply guided by the people's will.


But in reality, the world fair had been an elaborate piece of propaganda designed by Bernays for his clients, the giant American corporations. Privately, Bernays did not believe that true democracy could ever work. He had been profoundly influenced in this by his uncle's theories of human nature. Freud believed individuals were not driven by rational thought, but by primitive unconscious desires and feelings, and Bernays believed that this meant it was too dangerous to let the masses ever have control over their own lives. Consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing the responsible elite to continue managing society.


It's not that the people are in charge but that the people's desires are in charge. The people are not in charge, the people exercise no decision-making power in this environment. So democracy is reduced from something which assumes an active citizenry to something that's now increasingly predicated on the idea of the public as passive consumers, the public as people as - essentially that what you're delivering them are doggie-treats.


There are now growing demands that they [politicians] fulfill a grander vision, that they use the power of government to deal with the problems of growing inequality and the decaying social fabric of the country. But to do this they will have to appeal to the electorate to think outside their own self-interest and this would mean challenging the now-dominant Freudian view of human beings as selfish, instinct-driven individuals, which is a concept of human beings that has been fostered and encouraged by business because it produces ideal consumers. Although we feel we are free, in reality we have become a slave to our own desires. We have forgotten that we can be more than that, that there are other sides to human nature.


Fundamentally we have two different views of human nature and of democracy. You have the view that people are irrational, that they are bundles of irrational emotions, that comes directly out of Freud, and businesses are very able to respond to that - that's what they have honed their skills doing, that's what marketing is about. Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to judge what is best.

*Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the founding father of public relations and the main architect of modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion. He seems to have worked with every major US corporation as well as the government.

ETA: Forgot to link the torrent.



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