Thursday, May 26, 2005

Somewhere along the line I read recently - again - of Stanley Milgram's work on authority and conscience. If you're not familiar with it, please look it up. Briefly, he showed that most people will cause harm to others if they're ordered to by an authority. That's most. Don't know if anyone has used this in connection with torture and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it certainly looks germane. People will do things that their conscience tells them they shouldn't if someone who appears to be an authority tells them to. It really seems to be beyond belief, and yet study after study confirms the results. It says a lot about who we humans are. Or what.

One lesson? Pick your authority wisely, or not at all. Douglass Truth -- the original, I'm just a low-level iteration -- proved to me once and for all that there are no authorities. Something shocking and frightening to almost everyone when they first learn it. If you find yourself in need of an authority, just concentrate your mind on Douglass Truth's sublime equanimity, as shown below. He won't mind - he won't even notice! And you'll learn, eventually, that you can only trust yourself.


Anonymous Frederic Christie said...

I do have to make a caveat: There are as a factual matter authorities, with power in control of the state, the economy, the culture (in terms of racial elites and authorities), in the gender and kinship spheres (in terms of male elites), etc.

But we do not have to accept their authority, especially since it does not arrive out of justice. However, their power will continue to change the world.

Luckily, most Americans, as much as we may want to deny it, ARE the elite vis-a-vis the rest of the planet. And our decisions very much effect the way people in other countries will live.

I think it's not just authority, though that helps, but some learned practice of dehumanization. People can arrive at this process by racial animosity, nationalist hysteria, etc.

June 19, 2005 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Douglass Truth said...


I'm using authority in the psychological sense - in the way we project authority onto someone wearing a uniform (or reminds us of Dad or Mom, or howsoever we form the authority in our heads) whether or not they actually have any "real" authority.

So right that we don't have to accept anyone's authority (that's why the joke with Douglass-Truth, accept that as authority and you've Groucho'ed the whole thing) but the kind of authority Milgram is talking about is one that we project, whether or not it's backed up by the state. Hmm. Maybe we're trained so to do, by the assumed power of the state? I'm over my head here, lost in semantics. I thought I knew what I was talking about!

Milgram's experiments were run with many different kinds of people, and the results were always the same. I don't know if the samples used could be said to be comprehensive. Let's hope not.

Sure - we're the elite, but not for much longer, I think. The Chinese will be saying something about it. I read one comment from an anonymous Chinese diplomat: in 50 years Chinese will have American houseboys...

thanks so much for your comments. See you and your mom and dad in July.

June 20, 2005 5:07 AM  

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