Saturday, June 25, 2016


*originally published January of 2014

Point zero two five.

Of forty participants ONE refused to continue, refused to inflict.

Extrapolated perhaps absurdly (the sample size isn’t big enough) to society at large this means .025 percent of us follow our conscience or principles – maybe better put, .025 of us HAVE a conscience or principles.

Decimal points are important.

The above is not twenty five in a hundred. Statistically niggardly, that number could be tossed away completely and used to argue how nearly no one has a conscience (seven and a half million of three hundred million is a veritable piss in the ocean, using US census statistical measures).  

The general fuckery of cops comes in many forms, and not always with badge displayed or gun blazing. The gum chewing mouth breather, with standard issued flat top haircut and square jaw to match, is a caricature. He exists, don’t get me wrong. He’s a distraction, that’s all. 

Of course, a cop by definition IS a weapon-wielding goon. That much is obvious. What of, however, the cops in other aspects of our lives, the authority figures, be they teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians? Behind their officialdom is ultimately the gun of authority. The professional certificated classes are our rulers, our social betters, and it is they who we are to obey at all cost. 

It does floor me how conditioned we are to do what they ask, when they ask it.

Whether it’s the unimaginative fellow in a uniform or the gal with scrambled consonants after her name, we swoon at authority. We crave them. We worship them. They tell us who we are. They impact our lives in every conceivable way, from the food we eat, the clothes we wear, to the type of language we use to convey the stuff of thought. How we love. Where we live. You get the idea. 

A rather basic question to our minders, our watchers, might be who is watching them? Who watches the watchers? And, then, I want to know who is watching the watchers’ watchers? No games. I want to know. 

The early 1960s produced some interesting experiments in social psychology.

As a lowly assistant professor of psychology at Yale, Stanley Milgram, a Harvard PhD, asked volunteers to participate in a memory experiment. They’d be paid a modest sum for their time.

The participants were told they would be acting as Teachers and how the experiment was to monitor memory thresholds of Learners via punishment. The volunteers, newly minted Teachers as Milgram labeled them, had no idea it was THEY who were the study’s focus. If you’d ask the Teachers, they’d tell you the Learners were the ones being experimented upon.

The Learners were actually “in” on the study, actors. Learners were kept in an adjacent room, strapped down and connected to electrodes.

Teachers were placed at a console with dials and neat measuring apparatuses. In front of Teachers were clearly marked measures of something, complete with red needles bobbing in direct causation with turns of a dial, presses of a button. And more presses of a button meant more punishment to Learners.

A third person played a key role in the study, the Experimenter. Milgram gets brilliant and decides to outfit the Experimenter in a white coat, connoting knowledgeable authority (doctor, scientist), and equip the Experimenter with a clipboard.

Stage set.

To repeat, the experiment presented to Teachers was one of memory. Word pairs were given and then asked to be regurgitated by Learners. If Learners made a mistake, Teachers were instructed by the Experimenter to administer electric shocks.

Audio speakers were set up in both rooms so Learners could hear the pairings and Teachers could hear Learners’ responses.

Mistake. Shock.

Learners’ hostile and loud reactions at being shocked increased in intensity to proportionate rise in shock voltage. Mistake after mistake on the Learners part meant higher and higher voltage by way of the Teachers. Some Teachers shuddered at pleadings from Learners, turning to the Experimenter for a kind of moral guidance.

Teachers pressed on when the man in the white coat instructed them.  

Voltage, according to the dials, reached as high as 400v. Learners’ yells and screams of pain and torment suddenly gave to complete silence at the higher voltages. For all Teachers knew, Learners could be in dire need of medical attention, at the very least, or even dead!

Again, of the first forty Teachers, ONE refused.  

For many social scientists the lessons of Milgram come in an attempt to answer the question of why it is the minority control the majority. 

This IS the question of history.  

In our day, why is it the One Percent-ers (governments) control the Ninety Nine Percent-ers (populations)? 

Why do we allow this scenario? 

We outnumber them, yes? 

Milgram seems to have answered this intractable paradox. We do for a variety of reasons, and maybe division of labor is part of the solution, but mostly it is because we’re ingrained for an eager embrace of authority … like a warm, full hug. Regardless of our education and our social standing, we follow orders. The language of genetics was (and really is still) in its infancy during Milgram’s time, but he got close to saying following is in our DNA.

The family is perhaps our first model. Naturally it is an authoritarian structure. Totalitarian, really. Mom and dad had ALL the answers for a significant part of our lives, and we HAD to trust them implicitly. All of us did, to greater or lesser degrees. It’s hard to know if we ever really abandon that trust. And maybe governments and various forms of power structures are family. Certainly, the military is a big-daddy operation for its soldiers. Maybe we’re all soldiers in this metaphorical regard as citizens. I dunno.  

The import of the Milgram Experiment to my way of thinking is the act of moral transference. It’s what I hear from those in the military, mostly. They’ll rack up their atrocities to youthful indiscretions and put all such responsibility on the authority figure. No. I won’t let them have it that way. No I won’t. It is my theological position you’re an individual, and I so respect your decision to act that I actually hold you responsible for those actions. Period.  

Would you press the button?

And I mean it.


The great Sharon Presley, who studied under Milgram, contacted me and pointed to a couple of updated resources concerning this subject:

Resources for Independent Thinking

Standing Up to Experts and Authorities

LIKE her on Facebook


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