Readers Write: Hoping we muster our better angels

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In previous letters it was established that Golding believes evil lies within all of us.

Taylor suggests that  most people are not innately good or evil, but lie somewhere between these extremes.

We now turn to Milgram who sees obedience as the explanation for man’s evil acts.

Stanley Milgram was a psychology professor at Yale who was fascinated by the idea of obedience to authority.

Looking at Nazi Germany, he realized that while the idea of killing millions may have originated in the mind of one man (Hitler)  the  implementation of this policy required the collaboration of thousands.

Milgram devised an experiment which purportedly showed the effects of punishment on learning, but actually demonstrated man’s obedience.

A “teacher” and a “learner” enter a room. The learner’s arm is strapped to an electrode which carries shocks inflicted by the “teacher.”

This is all a charade because the learner is a paid actor who never receives any shocks.

We are only concerned with the teacher’s behavior. He sits down at a board with 30 switches labeled from 15 to 450 volts.

In addition to these numbers the low voltage side of the board side has the label “Slight shock” while the high voltage side of the board reads “Danger-Extreme Shock.”

Whenever the learner gives an incorrect answer, the “teacher” administers a shock moving up the board until 450 volts is reached.

To put stress on the “teacher,” at 75 volts the learner grunts; at 120 he verbally complains; at 150 he demands to be released; and at 285 he responds with an agonizing scream.

Whenever a teacher protests that they are hurting the subject or worse, the experimenter wearing a white scientist’s gown states that the experiment “must go on.”

Most who read about this experiment or see the film about it feel uncomfortable. No one is happy with the notion that good people (like us) would inflict so much pain.

Some state that  the “teachers” in the experiment must have been unusually sadistic when, in fact, they were just average businessmen, managers and professionals. In its original design,  Milgram planned to do the study at Yale and then take it to Germany based on the hypothesis that the Germans would manifest more obedience and cruelty.

Milgram never had to go to Germany since  there was no way that the Germans could be more inhumane than the Yale subjects.

To Milgram’s surprise, two- thirds of the subjects proceeded to shock up to 450 volts.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote a book about Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel. Calling her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” she concluded that the mass murderer was an uninspired bureaucrat who sat at his desk and did his job.

For this, Arendt became the object of considerable scorn since she challenged the Israeli prosecution’s argument that only a twisted and sadistic monster could have perpetrated such heinous acts.

Arendt was merely echoing Milgram’s findings about the “banality of evil.”

Thus, Milgram and Arendt are in agreement with Golding that evil lies within all of us.

Hans Askenasy, another psychologist, finds Milgram’s conclusions convincing, and has written a book which asks the question — Are We All Nazis?

For those who are convinced that the empirical evidence is there, the historic record supports us. World War II took the lives of 50,000,000.

Between 1975 and 1979 in the “Killing Fields of Cambodia” over 1 million died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. On March 8, 1968, the My Lai Massacre occurred with between 347 and 504 civilians — men, women, children and infants being shot.

Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated prior to the massacre. Of 26 soldiers charged, only Lt. William Calley was found guilty.

Originally given a life sentence, he served only three and a half years under house arrest.

The Russian gulags are another example of man’s inhumanity to man.

Between 1929 and 1953 estimates of deaths range from 1.6 million to over 10 million.

Another shameful moment in history was when the Ottoman Empire, later the Republic of Turkey, systematically exterminated 1.5 million Armenians.

And even as I write this, Bashar al-Assad has used sarin gas on his own people in Syria.

What kind of ignorant monster, devoid of compassion, could be responsible for such brutality?

Bashar al-Assad attended medical school in Damascus and then specialized in opthamology.

The mass murder of millions upon millions of innocents  plus the experimental data makes the case for man’s propensity for evil.

Our only hope is that our ability to empathize with others and our capacity for compassion occasionally prevails.


Dr. Hal Sobel

Great Neck

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