What would you do if you were is 1930’s Germany witnessing the rise of Hitler? Would you realize that something was very wrong with the trajectory of the leadership? What would you do about it?
Before the current era in politics this was a purely hypothetical question that now seems to have become painfully relevant. It was the question that inspired Stanley Milgram to conduct his experiments on obedience in the 1960’s. His hypothesis was that there was something about the German people that made them more likely to carry out such atrocities. He tested the hypothesis:
“How far would people obey orders given from an authority figure, under circumstances that contradicted their beliefs?”
To his horror; he proved that all it took for most people to shock someone they have never met into unconisness and beyond, over arbitrary nonsensical questions- is a man in a lab coat who says he “will take the responsibility.” I could write about the procedures used in the experiment but I think this short video says it all:
When the study was proposed; the predictions of how many people would shock the ‘learner’ to the end was 1-3%. The general consensus among Milgram’s colleague was that only a genuine psychopath would need such little reason to administer shocks to a person that they perceive to be unconscious.
Boy were they wrong.
“Although most subjects were uncomfortable doing it, all 40 subjects obeyed up to 300 volts. During the Stanley Milgram Experiment, many subjects showed signs of tension. 3 subjects had ‘full-blown, uncontrollable seizures.’
25 of the 40 subjects continued to complete to give shocks until the maximum level of 450 volts was reached.” (including the 4 shocks administered to an unresponsive person, where no response was taken as a wrong answer.)
Still, 65% never stopped giving shocks. None stopped when the learner said he had heart-trouble. How could that be? We now believe that it has to do with our almost innate behavior that we should do as told, especially from authority persons.”
I learned about this study before my formal education in psychology from my dad who had been a psychology major himself. I learned about the real world consequences of the phenomenon from my Oma and Opa, who went through WWII on different sides of the conflict. My Oma growing up in Berlin and my Opa, a Jew from the Netherlands. For many Americans, stories of Nazis and WWII are hypothetical tales told in black and white photos from the pages of history books. For me, they were first hand family history. Situations that some of my immediate family had survived or the reason I would never meet them.
My Oma recently wrote a book about her early life and what it was like to come to America after the war and live out the American Dream. It is really good and best told by her.
It was because of my family I was never allowed to live in a world where these things were held at a safe distance. I was related to people who experienced things from both sides of the coin. I was never able to discount one side as saintly and the other demonic. Like the participants in the experiment I was well aware that all people can be put in a situation where they can be made to do things most of us would say they never would and as my Oma’s story proved; you can bear the responsibility for the actions of others by simple geographical association.
These are not facets of our existence that no longer apply, something that only happened “once upon a time” and “in a land far far away.” Rather, they are continued aspects of the human condition that are still very much at work. There is a recent show on Netflix called “The Push” that brutally demonstrates this.
So what’s my point?
Simply that in every situation we are responsible for our own actions, even if someone is telling you different. We always have a choice of how we treat others. We control how we handle ourselves even when we are in situations that make us uncomfortable or are presented to us as having a forgone conclusion. I have written before about this personal responsibility in the face of ‘reflexive’ response and my opinion on the matter has not wavered.
Our world is becoming increasingly contentious but this in no way alleviates personal responsibly to be kind and thoughtful, to act and not react. The picture at the top of the page is of my Opa. During the war, his family went into hiding and he joined the Dutch Resistance. The caption reads “This is how I hunted the collaborators and Gerries” (slang for Nazis). After immigrating to the US he was introduced to a woman from Berlin. At first, he refused to meet her based on where she was from. He was told that his prejudice would not be allowed, that this was America where everyone had a chance to be judged on the content of their character and not the origin of their birth.
I own my existence to that belief.
Not because it was passively asserted but because it was acted upon. That one time ‘hunter of collaborators’ opened his heart and found the love of his life, the mother of his two children and together they lived the immigrants’ dream all because they choose love over hate. Not because it was easy but because it was right.
There is no telling how history will record this time in our nation but the world is watching. These are not situations that have no historical correlatives. This experiment has been run before. Awareness is the first step toward mindful action. Compassion is the only attitude that will bring us out of this better than we went into it. It is too easy to think of people as ‘other,’ ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ and at no time will it help us to find common ground.
We must come from a place of love and compassion if we have any chance to alleviate the suffering of ourselves and others. We cannot lift people up while stomping them into the ground. We can plant seeds in that same mud with loving care and in time, reap the harvest of a beautiful garden that choice creates.
The people who obeyed the lab tech till the end did not do so blithely, they did so at great personal anxiety and turmoil. It is for this reason that we cannot use fear or discomfort as the measure of what we should do, all important choices will carry with them discomfort. All we can do is think before we act and honestly answer “am I acting out of love or fear?” I can promise you that neither will be comfortable. Constant comfort is a symptom of sedation not awareness. It is pain that makes life sweet and love that makes a life worth living. When time is at its end and we all realize that our lives are defined not by things we have thought but by the things we have done.
The choice is yours, this is the era of personal responsibility. What will you make of it?
Be well and remember that your actions are your only true possessions.