Thursday, 13 January 2011

Critical thought and resistance to authority is essential

During the early 1960s Prof Stanley Milgram of Stanford University conducted a series of psychological experiments that tested how far ordinary people will go in obeying authority. He found, shockingly, that ordinary people just like you and me will go to extraordinary lengths to inflict pain and suffering on fellow human beings - up to and including killing them - so long as the reasons for it are presented by authority figures and we are sold on their ideology and reasoning to justifying it.

We are even more likely to inflict pain on people if they are from an out-group (i.e. not one of “us”) or from a social group that is scapegoated, vilified or against whom there is extensive prejudice or fears, however irrational. We all have this potential to do serious harm to others given the “wrong” circumstances and where authority presents it as making sacrifices in the “common interest” or doing the common good.

Milgram said “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in (this) terrible destructive process” as a consequence of this almost blind obedience to authority.

However our psychology is not necessarily bad. Other psychological experiments show we want to do good not harm, we can see the human in all of us, and can resist and stand up against injustice; that we are capable of critically analysing and resisting those who would want us to do harm. Indeed it is such acts of sometimes extraordinary courage and resistance that we admire and subsequently remember in our national histories.

Today understanding these issues is more important than ever. There are current and real dangers, lurking within our human psychology, when we can so easily demonise and attack the rights of others who are not like “us”, to suggest that others – mostly the weakest and least powerful in our society - suffer the pain of cutbacks, financial hardship, discrimination and unfairness.

Now, more than ever, we need to be critically of the arguments/ideology of authority or government and the populist media; to put up resistance to such notions that this is “our” financial crisis and we are “all suffering together” in the common interest; to oppose scapegoating and prejudice and stress that we are all deserving of respect and dignity; and we should not inflict pain on others just because authority says we have to.


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