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A few bad apples…

By G.D. Maxwell Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I’m pretty sure that was the high point of George Orwell’s Animal Farm according to the faculty at Father Guido Sarducci’s Five-Minute University.

By G.D. Maxwell

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I’m pretty sure that was the high point of George Orwell’s Animal Farm according to the faculty at Father Guido Sarducci’s Five-Minute University. I don’t know; I read the book before matriculating at that august institution and was, therefore, given a pass on Classics 101: Intro to 20 th Century Literature.

Instead, I studied psychology. Perhaps studied is too rigorous a word. I treaded water in the psychology faculty long enough to get close to fulfilling the degree requirements before moving on to, I believe, philosophy. I was working my way backwards through the ‘Ps’.

Psychology at the undergraduate level was largely the study of studies undertaken by solemn men and women in white lab coats observing how white mice reacted to various stimuli and deprivations, mice standing in for people in what I think was an ironic statement on both university life and larger society in general.

I had no real burning desire to study psychology but I had an even less burning desire to go to Vietnam and I hadn’t yet hoodwinked the Selective Service into my bye on that misadventure. Besides, the ratio of comely co-eds to horny guys in the psychology faculty was something like 19:1, odds even I could appreciate notwithstanding they always wanted to mess with my head before we got on with our clinical experiments in human sexuality.

What I remember most of psychology – in the spirit of Five-Minute U – are two bizarre experiments on human behaviour. Both have been on my mind lately as I watch the pathetic dog and pony show Bush and Rummy parade before the U.S. public to explain the seemingly unexplainable behaviour taking place in the 51 st state: Iraq.

In 1961, Stanley Milgram was doing the white lab coat thing at Yale University. He was still chewing on the atrocities committed by Nazis in WWII and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials – Five-Minute U’s lesson on Nuremberg: Just following orders won’t keep you from hanging – when he hatched the idea for his obedience trials.

Having tired of spending his days with grad students and white mice, Doc Milgram decided to experiment on humans. He advertised for people to take part in an obedience experiment – offering $4.50 for an hour’s work – and got his subjects, a cross-section of Yalies and Townies.

The subjects were the experiment’s "teachers". Their job was to ask the "learners" a series of questions. The white lab-coated authority figure explained this was an experiment delving into the role punishment played in learning performance. For each wrong answer, the teacher was to throw a switch, administering an electric shock to the learner. Shocks began at a benign 15 volts and moved upward for each subsequent wrong answer in 15 volt increments to 450 volts, each escalation being represented by another switch. The final two switches beyond 450 were marked "XXX".

Labouring under the illusion the experiment was about what the learners were doing, the real experiment was, of course, to determine how far the teachers would go in administering punishment at the behest of the lab-coated authority figure. The learners were actors and the shocks were, themselves, illusory.

When Milgram presented his work, he assembled an audience of students, profs and townies and laid it out as a hypothetical. He explained the experiment and asked those assembled to indicate how far they’d go in administering punishment. Everyone said they’d resist authority and, on average, stop shocking learners when the voltage got to 120.

In the actual experiment, 65 per cent of the teachers went all the way to triple-X! Even though the learners’ screams of pain and pounding had given way to unconscious silence after 330 volts were administered. Cool, eh?

The experiment has been replicated about a dozen times around the world since 1961 with results ranging as high as 85 per cent of people delivering the maximum voltage. The only encouragement they needed to reach this "sadistic" level of punishment was the calm reassurance of an authority figure telling them to do their duty.

The other experiment was even more bizarre. In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted what’s become known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. It is the seminal demonstration of the power of social situations to distort personal identities and long cherished values and morality.

For $15 a day, two dozen Stanford students signed on to role play. Half were randomly tapped to be prison guards, half to be prisoners. A "prison" was set up in the basement of the Psych building and on a quiet Sunday morning, real Palo Alto cops arrested the student prisoners, booked them at the real police station, tossed them in a holding cell and some hours later, drove them blindfolded to the experimental prison.

They were processed, put in prison uniform – a dress bearing their prisoner number under which they wore no underwear, and a stocking cap – and locked up. The guards were uniformed and bore a spooky, and intentional, resemblance to the crackers guarding the chain gang in the movie Cool Hand Luke .

The subjects of this experiment had been run through a battery of psych tests to weed out the weirdos. These were middle-class kids at a prestigious university. The experiment was set to run two weeks.

Zimbardo called a stop to the proceedings after six days! Things had gotten out of hand. Prisoners began to act like prisoners and, more disturbingly, guards began to act like guards. Even one of Zimbardo’s grad students overseeing the experiment got so wrapped up in it he began acting like a prison warden.

Guards abused, humiliated and degraded prisoners, particularly during the night shift when they thought no one was watching. They hooded them, made them perform simulated sexual perversions, administered corporal punishment and generally reduced them to non-humans.

So what’s that tell us about what’s going on in Iraq? What’s it tell us about the delicate line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour?

The monster lives within all of our souls. Our "morality" is situational. So is our sense of outrage. It’s easy to sit in our comfortable houses and watch television and tsk-tsk the actions of depraved psychos. It’s hard to remember they’re really just like us – whether they’re humiliating prisoners or beheading infidels… or swinging hockey sticks or bullying other 14-year-olds to death.

Whether the MPs or jumbo shrimp, er, military intelligence were in charge at Abu Ghraib isn’t really important. The situation in which this immorality is being played out was staged and scripted in Washington. Yet, Bush and Rummy can sit comfortably in DC, accept responsibility – which has just about completely devalued the meaning of that word – and say it’s all just a few bad apples.

Regime change, anyone?