Monday, April 22, 2013

Banality of Evil

From a writing prompt on our Honors Psychology Discussion Board:

Q: Think of a time when you resisted conformity or obedience.  What were the reasons behind resisting conformity or obedience? If you were a participant in Milgram’s study, would you have obeyed the experimenter? Why or why not?

I have resisted conformity and obedience many, many times in this life. Generally, my reasons were a mix of practicality, ethics, and sheer orneriness.

I make a practice, for instance, of completely reading through whatever I am handed before I sign, which irks medical clerks like no one’s business. I have rarely found anything to which I objected, but I suspect that were other people to read and understand to what they were consenting, they would not sign, preferring instead to keep their statistical, anonymized medical information private. On one memorable occasion, I was expected to sign a digital screen that stated that I had read a handout and had been given the opportunity to ask questions, without receiving the handout. I asked for a copy, and was told that my copy would not print until I signed, so go ahead and sign and then I could read it. That seemed backwards to me, and I told her so. She eventually had to call a supervisor, and the two of them had to figure out how to make the handout print before I signed saying that I had read the handout. Afterwards, I offered her a copy of the handout, so she would have it on hand if anyone else asked for it. “I’ve worked here for three years,” she sneered. “And no one has ever asked.”

I also refuse to participate in any part of the US census, other than the section enumerating my household. While I believe that our government has a compelling interest in collecting some data, and that we have a Constitutional duty to help our government enumerate our people, I also believe that there is a conflict between a citizen's right to privacy and the government's desire for information past enumeration. As an example, census data was key in the process of gathering citizens with Japanese ancestry during World War II, in order to herd them into concentration camps, and just a few years after September 11, census data regarding citizens of Arab descent was shared with Homeland Security. In the years since World War II, there have been several attempts to develop the legal use of census records beyond statistical analysis. Even worse, there have been efforts to expand the number of public entities that have the right to access and use census data. This system is ripe for abuse, and I feel an ethical obligation to abstain from these efforts. My refusal is currently illegal, and is punishable by a fine or even jail time.

In regards to Stanley Milgram’s experiment, I would like to say that I would have resisted, but that is statistically unlikely. It is possible, given my track record for non-cooperation, but not likely. In reality, I believe that participation in jailhouse torture (common everywhere from Guantanamo Bay to Comanche County) and other evil acts are an example of what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. In Hannah Arendt’s report, titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”, which posits that evil isn’t caused by “fanatics or sociopaths’ but rather by “ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal”. In the Milgram experiment, no great government was involved, but the behavior of the nominal authority figure did act to normalize the experiment conditions. This in no way excuses the actions of the participants, or makes the unethical ethical, but it does, in part, explain the results of the Milgram experiment and the many daily atrocities committed by people upon other people.

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