In my political science classes at university, we studied Stanley Milgram and his experiment on obedience to authority figures. Milgram was a psychologist who “measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.” I find it to be a fascinating study, and would encourage you to read even a summary of it from the Wikipedia article I linked above.
In short, each participant was given the role of “teacher.” A trained member of the experiment was acting as a student, hooked up to an faux electric shock and required to recite back certain words. When he was incorrect, the “teacher” had to shock him at increasing levels, to which he then responded to, including screams of pain. Whenever the “teacher” hesitated to shock the student, he was given four prods to proceed: please continue; the experiment requires that you continue; it is absolutely essential that you continue; you have no other choice, you must go on. If they continued through the entire experiment, the final shock was 450-volts.
Before he began, Milgram polled fourteen senior-level psychology students, which estimated between 0 and 3 percent would go to the end and deliver the 450-volt shock.
In Milgram’s first experiment, sixty-five percent administered the final shock.
Milgram concluded, “The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
[Is the connection of this to Burma’s army as obvious to the general public as it is to me?]
It’s hard to conceive this: that these are ordinary people in Milgram’s study; that the Burmese soldiers carrying out gross human rights abuses are as well. That, in many ways, this is you and I.
How close am I to shocking an innocent person with 450 volts?
How willing are we to create destruction, perhaps based on authority and instruction?
How close am I to completely undervaluing human life?
Maybe not even directly, but how am I disregarding human life now–perhaps in my purchases, perhaps in ignoring the suffering of another?
Or a million others?
My college roommate, Mallory, wrote it so well in her senior thesis, Shake, Shake the Mango Tree:
“It is frightening to think that one person could forget or ignore the suffering of another person. What is more frightening is the ease with which people do it. And Gabriel, the most frightening thing of all is that we see that it is made so easy for others and they are so able to do it, which means we are at risk for doing the very thing we now see as horrible…”