Men in White Coats

‘Progress’ and the pitfalls of obedience.

Possibly the most bewildering of the mysteries emanating from continuing global lockdown authoritarianism is the recurring thought concerning the way once workaday politicians and boy-next-door police officers have overnight transformed into tyrants. We have observed the syndrome relayed on an almost daily basis in the past month from Australia, where the premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews has, from the womb of his patent stupidity, given birth to a despotism as repulsive as his hitherto unexceptionable features have become. Having incarcerated his previously sovereign citizens in their homes and issued prohibitions on protest and dissent, he stands daily before the press to obfuscate about public health. Nor has he found a shortage of able lieutenants in the police force of Victoria, members of which happily arrest pregnant women for objecting to this tyranny on Facebook, or drag citizens from their cars for refusing to bend to their commands, or place face masks as though they were thorny crowns on arrested citizens once subdued. All this in the name of the ‘common good’.

For the moment, Victoria leads the way. But the past six months have thrown up innumerable such would-be martinets around the globe, recognizable not merely in the inhumanity of their diktats but in the visible sadism of their demeanor: the British minister who periodically muses about whether he may permit children to embrace their grandparents for Christmas, the Irish health supremo who went to cabinet with a proposal that would allow the police to break into people’s homes and conduct a count of any visitors found therein.

All our lives, certainly most of us who have attained middle-age have been reading and re-reading George Orwell with a mixture of complacency and condescension.  What kind of societies, we mused, might give birth to such monstrosities? Not ours, surely! Even when alerted to the banal qualities of evil, we have tended to rest on the laurels of our freedoms and thanked our lucky stars that we are led by phlegmatic, shambling figures with no aspirations to put their boots on our faces.

No longer we can indulge in such smug certitudes. Now we see, through our front windows, the precise circumstance Orwell was warning of, as we slouch towards the new normal, the Great Reset, the New World Order, the dystopia we thought a figment of feverish novelistic imaginations. The horrific Daniel Andrews is but the prototype to be followed by people to whom we may desultorily have given our votes no more than a year since.  His uniformed sturmtruppen are soon to be the working prototypes for the bobby who lives unobtrusively upstairs, already imagining himself dragging your sisters from her vehicle for not responding without question to his diktats.

How could such things happen in our gentle societies? How could they do this to us? Where did they slither from, these pop-up tomfool dictators? The conundrum of the inscrutability of evil rises once again above the horizon that once seemed so reassuring.

These events tell us that, in spite of all the lessons we might have learned from history, our understandings of evil remain more rudimentary than is good for us. In spite of all the warnings, we had succumbed again to thinking that inhumanity arises solely from extreme ideologies of, for example, tribalism or from the actions of unusually pathological individuals, monsters with odd mustaches.

The conundrum of human evil has long obsessed social scientists, and 1961 was a year when the issue appeared to yield some new insights. That year, the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem prompted from the pen of Hannah Arendt a phrase that seemed to say something new: ‘The banality of evil’.

Eichmann, as observed by Arendt, presented a new kind of problem.  He was not ‘evil’ in the conventional sense, but in what seemed to be a new way. He was evil, and yet he was also normal. His evildoing was of an everyday kind, yes, but more than that, his evil derived from his ‘normality’. This implied that the kind of things he did might well be done by any of us. It might even mean that the more ‘ordinary’ we are, the more likely we are to perpetrate such evils.  

Arendt’s profile of Eichmann suggested something even more terrifying than even the swastika: that the locus of evil was to be found not in some phenomenon to be located in others, but much closer to home. By her analysis, all the requisite conditions for evil-doing existed in the human person, and were accordingly amenable, in theory at least, to each human person to observe in him/herself. It was, she proposed the very ordinariness of Eichmann that had rendered him prone to become infected by wickedness. She postulated that the capacity for evil arises when ordinary people, zombie-like, thoughtlessly and mindlessly carry the instructions deriving either from authority or from their allotted roles or functions.

Perhaps Eichmann was the first NPC.* Arendt noted, for example, that he seemed incapable of uttering a single sentence that wasn’t a cliché. His evil arose from his denseness, his inability to think, which is to say his inability to engage in a dialogue with himself. He uttered only words given to him by others. Another way of saying this might be to say that he was a man without a self, without an ‘I’. He could converse with himself or others only in language given to him. He had no internal sense of the absolute. His ‘absolute’ consisted in his duty to do what he was told. This syndrome, indeed, was at the heart of the Nazi project — the idea that you could make laws to make just about anything legal. The judges of Nuremberg had to raise their gaze skywards before they could even formulate their indictments.

That same year, this idea of evil appeared to be borne out by what became known as the Milgram experiment, named for its leader Stanley Milgram, who supervised the eponymous research project at Yale University. Participants were asked to role-play as ‘teachers’ and administer electric shocks to ‘pupils’, people they assumed to be fellow participants. The ‘pupils’, invisible but audible in another room, were actors; unbeknownst to the ‘teachers’ the electric shocks were not real.

The original reports of the experiment suggest that the  objective was to ascertain the extent of participants’ willingness to inflict pain, distress and worse on other people if told to do so by authority figures.  The results were sobering. Two-thirds of the subjects were willing to go to a point where, had they been administering real electric shocks, the ‘pupils’ would have died. The central conclusion of the project was that ‘ordinary’ people are extraordinarily willing to inflict pain and terror if ordered to do so by what they believe a legitimate authority, in this case Men in White Coats.

More recent examination of the Stanley Milgram archives at Yale University, however, has revealed a more ambiguous picture. The key factor emerging from Milgram’s records was that the subject in his experiment had been repeatedly told that they were engaged in a scientific experiment directed at achieving a progressive end in the common good, that their honest contributions to the experiment would help expand human knowledge of effective learning techniques, and was therefore noble.

Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Jay Van Bavel, three scientists who sought to develop these ideas in a series of experiments for a 2002 BBC TV programme, wrote in Prospect magazine last year that those who impose greater harm are ‘those who identify more with the scientific project and believe that they are helping advance a progressive cause. This constitutes a “greater good” which justifies whatever harm is imposed.’

Ten years after Milgram’s experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, pursuing a not dissimilar plotline involving ‘prison guards’ and ‘prisoners’, came to the conclusion that all of us carry with ourselves hidden depths of sadism awaiting the right trigger, that ordinary people are disposed to do horrendous things once provided with the pretext to claim they are ‘only following orders’, that evil acts may be the result of circumstance rather than character and choice.

But again, another recent public intervention by Reicher, Haslam and Van Bavel suggests, on the basis of scrutiny of video and sound recordings of the Stanford Prison Experiment, that, rather than guards conforming to roles of their own accord, the participants ‘acted’ tough because the experimenters directly encouraged them to do so.  The results, then, came about not naturalistically but as the result of overt steering and shaping of the experiment.  And, again, the ‘guards’ were repeatedly instructed that they were participating in an experiment that would contribute to the development of more humane prison regimes. As with Milgram, the Standford experiment was accompanied by assurances of underlying virtue relating to the exploration, in the interest of science, the darker depths of human nature.

Writing in The Psychologist magazine in August, 2018, Reicher, Haslam and Van Bavel averred: ‘Our textbooks and our lectures will have to be rewritten. The story of what happened in the SPE and why such brutality occurred will have to be retold.’

These researchers also found that the psychological trickery utilized in the Milgram and Stanford experiments followed remarkably similar patterns, in particular in the way that the subjects were told that, in order for the experiment to have credibility, they needed to push the envelope as far as possible in inflicting pain and brutality on, respectively. ‘pupils’ and prisoners’. Reicher, Haslam and Van Bavel declared: ‘Far from being instructed to serve a noxious cause, in both studies [participants] are invited to collaborate in a worthy cause (indeed, in his experimental notebooks, Milgram himself ponders whether his studies might be better understood as about co-operation rather than obedience). Where obedient participants in these studies are normally characterised as doing harm to powerless victims, from their own perspective they are contributing to important research designed to help others.’

It is not, then, merely a matter of obedience to Men in White Coats, not simply that humans have a ‘natural’ predisposition to do evil under instruction from authority figures, but that their desire to do good can lead them to cross lines without understanding that what they are doing is wicked. If people can become convinced that they are involved in a moral project, they are more prone to suspend empathy for others. As Reicher, Haslam and Van Bavel put it: ‘One of the surest ways to lead them to evil is to convince them that they are doing the opposite.’

*NPC is an acronym used in video games for 'non-player character', i.e. a character that doesn't respond to the player's intervention,  which has crept into mainstream discourse as a synonym of 'normie', or someone who presents or behaves as an automaton in public, someone with no capacity to engage with ideas. 

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.