Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Famous Last Words

Jim Manzi is willing to concede that evil is banal in large swaths of the world -- but here, while we might fall for a Milgram Experiment now and then, our Anglo-Saxonness will always sniff out the real thing:

After all, they were making a (likely unarticulated) judgment about whether an action was “right” in the context of what presumably seemed like legitimately professional scientists at a major research university in the middle of a law-bound, peaceful republic. Operating in the way that most decision-making under pressure works, which is not necessarily linear processing of logical statements, they likely thought something that could be crudely represented as “Well, they wouldn’t be allowed to do something that was really heinous, and would destroy their careers if they did. I don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but all my assumptions about how the world works would be violated if Yale University could really run a torture chamber operated by random people picked off the street. It would just be too crazy.” This muddled-headed, superficial thinking turns out to have been a correct judgment. [emphasis mine]
"All my assumptions about how the world works" -- this is the heart of it. The assumption is that there must be an acceptable truth beneath the unacceptable surface of things. This is, Manzi says, a safe assumption in "Anglo-Saxon culture" but not in, say, Germany, Spain, or Italy. Neat!

As famous last words go, which is the most famous: respectable men in lab coats would never try that; or it can't happen here? Or how about the always crowd-pleasing we don't torture?

It's a trick question -- they're exactly the same. Everywhere.

(image source)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment (and great poster!).

I indicated that the culture (and instiutions) mentioned by two other posters were signifciant, and I think they are. My point about the assumptions, and the reason I used a thought experiment of a rapid takeover of the US, is that these assumptions will change for almost everyone if their environment changes. That is, there's nothing magincal about current residents of the US, but their acculturation does act as one bulwark against tyranny.

Jim Manzi

Dale said...

JM, thanks for the comment. But I really don't see how I can maintain a blog if everyone I criticize not only responds but does so reasonably. This can't stand!


larryniven said...

Even so, saying that our assumptions are a bulwark against tyranny is not the same as saying that they're effective in that regard, or even that they would work against all kinds of tyranny. As you said, Dale, it's not as though the U.S. is a wholly tyranny-free country even now, let alone when we were, say, keeping black slaves or putting Japanese people in camps. We can dither about extent or kind, but clearly whatever Anglo-Saxonism is in our culture is not a perfect inoculation.

Now, about what the experiment itself showed. I'm a bit skeptical of anyone who embarks on one of these grandiose stories about what "likely" happened, because (I assert) those stories come from nowhere other than from one's own intuitions about the situation. But this is precisely what experiments were meant to eliminate: random intuition-based prognostication about human behavior. Besides this meta-point, though, other experiments (especially the Stanford prison experiment) confirm the pessimistic interpretation of the Millgram experiment. Which Anglo-American assumptions allowed the Stanford "guards" to abuse their "prisoners," do you think?

Dale said...

Adding to what LN said ... regarding 'the thought experiment of a rapid takeover of the USA' - this is the trouble with thought experiments.

A rapid takeover of the USA that is perceived as such in real time is one thing -- the Cubans are here in tanks and they're tearing down all the signs and replacing them with explicitly Marxist propaganda, a la Red Dawn -- but actual rapid changes, when successful, are quite another. They happen by what seem to be -- and are loudly and explicitly claimed to be -- small and reasonable-seeming steps.

Obviously, it's the ones that might succeed that should worry us.

So yes, the people of the USA are subject to a certain acculturation that makes them wary of certain forms of 'rapid takeover.' A Red Dawn-style takeover of the USA is unlikely to succeed (as are others we could mention). But there are other means by which tyranny can creep in with alarming speed, and we're not so vigilant against them all. A large number of Americans have blithely accepted torture in recent years, for example. What else might we accept under the blanket of the same pleasing rationalizations and slender euphemisms?

I think our acculturation needs to include a strong element of explicit vigilance against tyranny in all its sly and varied forms.