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Tomtech in his must-read series “This Week in Fascism,” asked us to “find some ways to determine who is in league with the fascists.”

Recently, I howled while reading Meteor Blades‘ imagined fate for that nadir of nepotism, Jonah Goldberg — chained “to the floor in front of his computer for a 36-hour stretch, letting him squirm in his own feces and urine while listening to  Bush say ‘moooooolahs’ and ‘nukular’ repeatedly at 100 decibels.”

“But none of my friends,” Meteor Blades continued, “would turn their idle dreams of torture into reality no matter what the provocation. …

I hope so.  But I’m not at all sure.  Malcolm Gladwell has successfully questioned assumptions we make about instant impressions and reflexive reactions.  There are more assumptions for us to challenge: How we will react over a period of time to special sets of stimuli.

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A British reality TV show and a famous psychology experiment may tell us something more about ourselves and how we will react and operate in certain environments.

It’s sure that there’s a proclivity for the use of torture among many — from the doughboys like Goldberg and Rush Limbaugh to the do’em-boys like Donald Rumsfeld, Charles Graner, Alberto Gonzales and George Bush.

However, it’s not just the overquoted cartoon character Pogo who said the enemy is us.  So too, perhaps, has Philip Zimbardo, a distinguished (now emeritus) professor of psychology — in whose challenging class I was lucky enough to sit (enthralled by his mind, his knowledge, and the fearsome difficulty of the material and the tests, infamous for their ability to cut down the grade averages of the best and brightest).

Zimbardo asks: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place?”

I don’t think we can assume we know how we, or others we know, would behave.  Here’s why I think we can’t make safe assumptions:

From The Guardian‘s review of British Channel 4’s reality show, “Torture: The Guantanamo Guidebook”:

Channel 4 invited seven men to put on orange jumpsuits, sleep on metal beds and suffer interrogations while frozen, exhausted and disorientated.

I’d been skeptical about — and disgusted by — what I’d read about the program.  As The Guardian‘s reviewer, Mark Lawson, says, “It sounded like a nightmare of bad-taste television.”

In fact, The Guantanamo Guidebook turns out to be an impeccable exercise in liberal journalism: its revelatory intentions are more serious than many TV news bulletins. The Guardian

But, how could any produced reality show in any way replicate — beyond the torture, humiliations, blinding, and witnessing the beating deaths of other detainees — the fear of not knowing one’s fate?

The young men living in BBC2’s trenches knew that, due to the production company’s insurance policies, they did not, like their real predecessors, face death at any moment. In the same way, Channel 4’s detainees know that they are not really being detained indefinitely without trial on suspicion of terrorism and that, during their four days, their life and liberty are not at risk.  The Guardian

 This 2005 reality show is as unreal as Zimbardo‘s 1971 experiment:

We put good, ordinary college students in a very realistic, prison-like setting in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford.

But even the unreal can become real:

The most startling aspect of the [new UK Channel 4 reality] programme was how convincing the distress of the participants became, even though they knew that they would suffer no real harm. Monitoring by a doctor showed that their resting heartbeats had risen by 40%, indicating stress and fear.

The Bush administration might object that taking part in any television gameshow would have the same effect but, when one contestant develops hypothermia and another starts to vomit, it’s clear that this has ceased to be pretence.

Zimbardo found the same phenomenon in his 1971 experiment:

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.

How language affects behavior:

Language is used to obscure. “[E]xtraordinary rendition. That’s a euphemism,” points out Bob Herbert in today’s New York Times, and quoted by Armando in a prologue to Meteor Blades’ diary:

Dramatising the actions of the interrogators, the [Channel 4 “reality”] show was also very sharp on language. Because “sleep deprivation” is forbidden by the Geneva Convention, the Guantanamo captives are subject to “sleep adjustment”, although the linguistic subtlety of this adjustment may be lost on the captives. Later at Guantanamo, “suicide” was reclassified as “manipulative self-injurious behaviour”, thereby achieving a steep drop in the suicide rate.  The Guardian

Zimbardo used language too in his 1971 experiment:

We dehumanized the prisoners, gave them numbers, and took away their identity. We also deindividuated the guards, calling them Mr. Correctional Officer, putting them in khaki uniforms, and giving them silver reflecting sunglasses like in the movie Cool Hand Luke. Essentially, we translated the anonymity of Lord of the Flies into a setting where we could observe exactly what happened from moment to moment.”

Why This Reality Show Matters

Astonishingly — and convincingly — The Guardian defends the reality show:

… there is a greater justification for the simulation. Poems, novels, plays and movies had recorded or recreated so fully the experience of existing in the trenches that the application of a format associated with C-list celebrities seemed unnecessary and disrespectful. But the American government has so discouraged discussion about what is happening at Guantanamo that reporting needs to be inventive.

 Using statements from Donald Rumsfeld, information from released detainees and FBI memos uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act in America, the programme gives the clearest impression yet of what it might be like to live in a Rumsfeld jumpsuit. …

(Note: Ted Rall argues we already do have a lot of government papers in his important Feb. 27 column, “Full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”)

Again, our focus:  “It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people.”

“When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel,” writes the eminent situationist psychologist Philip Zimbardo, known for his famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 70s.

 “You could put virtually anybody in it and you’re going to get this kind of evil behavior,” he continued.

“The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That’s the dispositional analysis.

“The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that’s the wrong analysis. It’s not the bad apples, it’s the bad barrels that corrupt good people.

“Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that ‘little shop of horrors.”

From A Talk with Philip Zimbardo, Edge, January 19, 2005

The title of the Edge interview with Zimbardo?

You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel

But, we maybe are different.  And Zimbardo tells us why, and I think we can take some comfort in this:

He found in that experiment that it is “really a study of the competition between institutional power versus the individual will to resist.

We will resist. Or become “team players.”  

Because just as — we saw above — the unreal can become real, so too can unimaginable behavior become ordinary:

The companion piece [to Zimbardo’s prison experiment] is the study by Stanley Milgram, who was my classmate at James Monroe High School in the Bronx. (Again, it is interesting that we are two situationists who came from the same poor neighborhood.) His study investigated the power of an individual authority: Some guy in a white lab coat tells you to continue to shock another person even though he’s screaming and yelling.

“That’s one way that evil is created as blind obedience to authority.

“But more often than not, somebody doesn’t have to tell you to do something. You’re just in a setting where you look around and everyone else is doing it. Say you’re a guard and you don’t want to harm the prisoners–because at some level you know they’re just college students–but the two other guards on your shift are doing terrible things. They provide social models for you to follow if you are going to be a team player.”


How long will you resist?  What will it take to break you?  When will you become “one of them”?  Or have you already?

You Can’t Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel

These words from Gareth Peirce [PHOTO], in a rare interview recently with Amy Goodman, are specifically for us:

What I see it [unlimited detention and extraordinary rendition] as, is an experiment, an experiment by America to see what interrogative methodology it could use and obtain results in disregard completely of the fact that this  Well, consciously, in fact, knowing that it was using prohibited methods.

An experiment to see what you could get (disregarding the fact that experience tells us it must be nonsense what you get from coercive interrogation), but also an experiment in testing reaction internationally and nationally.

Will there be protest? Have we gone too far?

All emphases mine.

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