The monster within us 

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Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I'm pretty sure that was the high point of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Either that or never trust talking animals. Either way, it's not a half-bad explanation for what seems to be going on in the world right now. We seem to have a plague of corrupt talking animals running the show, from The Orange One laying waste to the U.S. constitution down south to Mr. Ford in Ontario demonstrating in puzzling detail Ontarians could, in fact, do worse than giving Bob Rae a majority government.

But this week's piffle isn't about literature. It isn't really even about corrupt politicians. It's more about you and me, well, you. No, me too, and how our disappointment in not getting what we want, or, as is often the case, even what we need, leads to the likes of Trump, Ford, Kenney,, goose stepping us down the road to intolerant totalitarianism.

In my quest to remain a student instead of a soldier during the Vietnam war, I flitted like a butterfly between various majors. For a couple of semesters, I studied psychology. Perhaps studied is too rigourous 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.

What I remember most from my dalliance are two bizarre experiments on human behaviour. Both have been on my mind lately as I watch large segments of the population of what I used to think of as civilized countries act in very uncivilized ways.

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 the Second World War and the subsequent Nuremberg Trials 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 faux teachers. Their job was to ask the learners, who were in on the joke, 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 roleplay. 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 the U.S., in our home and native land and elsewhere around the world? What does 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 much harder to accept the fact we don't have to scratch too far below the surface to find the Nazi in all of us.

It's happened before. It's happening now in an alarming number of countries. It may be happening in our own country, little by little, province by province.

Like Pogo said: We have seen the enemy and he is us.


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