… and none of us, not even Americans, are immune to some seriously bad ideas:
French documentarians conducted an experiment where they created a faux game show — with all the typical studio trappings — and then instructed participants (who believed it was a real TV program) to administer electric shock to unseen contestants each time they answered questions incorrectly, with increasing potency for each wrong answer. Even as the unseen contestants (who were actors) screamed in agony and pleaded for mercy — and even once they went silent and were presumably dead — 81% of the participants continued to obey the instructions of the authority-figure/host and kept administering higher and higher levels of electric shock. The experiment was a replica of the one conducted in 1961 by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, where 65% of participants obeyed instructions from a designated authority figure to administer electric shock to unseen individuals, and never stopped obeying even as they heard excruciating screams and then silence. This new French experiment was designed to measure the added power of television to place people into submission to authority and induce them to administer torture.
(Milgram made a cameo here at Blog on the Run in 2005.)
None of this should be at all surprising to anyone who has observed, first, the American political and media class, and then large swaths of the American citizenry, enthusiastically embrace what was once the absolute taboo against torture, all because Government officials decreed that it was necessary to Stop the Terrorists. But I just watched an amazing discussion of this French experiment on Fox News. The Fox anchors — Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum — were shocked and outraged that these French people could be induced by the power of television to embrace torture.
Speaking as employees of the corporation that produced the highly influential, torture-glorifying 24, and on the channel that has churned out years worth of pro-torture “news” advocacy, the anchors were particularly astonished that television could play such a powerful role in influencing people’s views and getting them to acquiesce to such heinous acts. Ultimately, they speculated that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority, just like many of them submitted to and even supported the Nazis, they explained. I kept waiting for them to make the connection to America’s torture policies and Fox’s support for it — if only to explain to their own game show participants at home Fox News viewers why that was totally different — but it really seemed the connection just never occurred to them. They just prattled away — shocked, horrified and blissfully un-self-aware — about the evils of torture and mindless submission to authority and the role television plays in all of that.
So Fox News broadcasters, even the psych majors among them, haven’t encountered Stanley Milgram’s work in their education and experience. Color me shocked.
But there’s a bigger point here, one that we ignore at our peril: The research of Milgram and others has found that, for reasons that may or may not be well understood, human beings have such an innate desire to please authority that most of them will willingly torture, even kill, other human beings win that approval. The idea that, in the Reality TV Age, television only amplifies this effect strikes me as Dr. Science Meets Captain Obvious.
I’m just enough of a pessimist to believe that evil can appear at any time among the banal choices and duties of everyday life, that we won’t always recognize it immediately for what it is, even when it is looking at us in the mirror, and that we therefore must always be wary. That means all of us, even — especially — we Americans.