Many people have been talking and posting about Orwell’s 1984. They’ve found in it meaningful parallels to our present political situation. I want to suggest another book: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority.
Milgram’s book describes his classic experiments in which he measured the degree to which normal people would obey instructions simply because they were given by an authority figure (in this case a scientist running an experiment). It may be the single scariest book I’ve ever read. It may be the most important book for us to read and remember in these times.
The concise summary of his research is this: two out of three people will apply what they believe to be a fatal shock to a subject (person) because they are told they must do so. There are ways to increase that percentage–such as by increasing the separation between the person receiving the shock and the one administering it–but in all variations of the experiment, at least two in every three individuals administered what they expected to be a fatal level of electricity.
These experiments were conducted
in the early ’60s, a direct reaction to the Holocaust. It was, in part, an attempt to understand how average Germans carried out Hitler’s plans.
These experiments have not been repeated or further explored because they have been seen as damaging to the subjects (the individuals who thought they were applying shocks). In fact, the Milgram experiments resulted in human subject committee approval being required for any studies involving human subjects.
We do not know whether knowing that there is a two in three chance that any of us would kill someone if ordered to do so changes our probability of doing so. It is my hope that it does. And that is why I think it is critical that we pay attention to Obedience to Authority now. If we are to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian government, we must first accept that we are inclined to accept and aid that government.
We can resist. We must resist. But to do that, we must first understand ourselves, and be willing to resist our natural inclinations.