In a now-famous study by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1963, he observed how far people would go in causing harm to others if they were pressured to do so by an authority figure.
It was post-WWII and the time of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. One of the questions to social scientists at the time is whether or not we were all the same as Eichmann, who said that he was simply obeying orders. Would we, like him, commit horrendous acts and justify ourselves by saying that we were just being obedient, or in Eichmann’s words, “A good German”?
In Milgram’s study, participants were told (falsely) that they were part of an experiment to see if punishments improved learning. The participants were put in front of a set of switches, showing voltages from 15 volts (labeled “slight shock”) to 450 volts (labeled “X X X,” even further along than the “DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK” that accompanied the 375-volt switch). They were told to ask a subject whom they could not see a series of questions. After every wrong answer, they were to use the switches to shock the individual and then increase the voltage. After “administering” a series of punishments from wrong answers, the participant would hear an actor shouting, “Stop! You can’t do this to me!” and screaming in pain.
How many people do you think would administer shocks to another person all the way past the switch labeled “DANGER: SEVERE SHOCK” to the one labeled “X X X” just because a researcher prompted them with phrases like “The experiment requires that you continue”? Disturbingly enough, nearly two-thirds of the participants flipped the switches all the way up to the maximum 450 volts. They were never threatened physically or verbally, simply told that they must go on. Those that refused — that one-third of participants — simply stopped obeying.
When I teach my students the Milgram study, most of them assume that they would be in the one-third who refused to shock another human being so cruelly. But this is not the lesson I think we should take from the study. I think we should say, “What would make me act that way toward another human being?” As you picture yourself in such a situation, imagine the enormous pressure you would feel to conform and obey. And decide now that you would find a way to stand up to the person demanding that you harm another.
Because prejudice and judgment by outward appearance are part of human nature, resisting the impulses toward racism, weight-ism, religious prejudice, sexism or elitism takes courage and strength of character. Psychologists would tell you that it is our nature to make shortcut judgments about others, to be prone to prejudice. But that does not make it inevitable. We have the power and responsibility to resist.
We like to think of ourselves as superior to those who fall prey to violent ideologies. We like to look down on them, knowing that we would never do such things. We like to think highly of ourselves, maybe as something like the “fine people” that Trump described as part of the crowd marching with neo-Nazis and white supremacists recently.
Some years ago I was talking with a colleague of mine about war, terrorism and torture. In our debate, he took the side that we are justified in pre-emptive war, that it is permissible to torture other human beings (if they were Muslim), and even said that we ought to “carpet-bomb the entire Middle East.” I asked him this: “Did you ever wonder how you got here? That you are advocating for the mass-murder of over 200 million people, the torture of other human beings and war? Did you ever think you would be on that side of this argument?”
This friend of mine, I have no doubt, considered himself a “fine person.” And to others I defended him, saying that I disagreed with his views but he was a “good person.” But there is a problem here: Either he is lying and doesn’t really believe what he is saying, or he is only a “good person” because he lacks the power to implement his campaign of mass killing and torture. We can think the best of others, and we should, but when do we need to stand and judge what is right?
What causes might lead you to march with such groups? What beliefs do you have that might lead you to support violence, hatred and bigotry? Be honest with yourself about your own prejudices. And for heaven’s sake, have the strength and guts to resist and defeat these ideas in yourself!
You cannot march with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and justify yourself by saying it was all about the removal of a Confederate statue. You should not march with these people no matter how much you agree with the immediate cause. If so, you must admit to yourself that a Confederate statue means so much to you that you are willing to march with those who espouse ideologies that are inhuman and un-American.
A little piece of advice: If the KKK wants to support your cause, refuse — and rethink your cause. And if neo-Nazis show up at your rally, go home.
Matthew Whoolery holds a doctorate in psychology and is an instructor at Brigham Young University-Idaho. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.