January 5, 2005

We do what we're told

One doubt
One voice
One war
One truth
One dream

- Peter Gabriel, We do what we're told

Right now, I'm running a piece of code that's scanning the Dutch Wikipedia looking for sequences of words that are all capitalised. I'll let you in on a little non-secret of my trade: this is an excellent way to find important multiword terms useful in categorisation and search. My code is a little clunky, and the Dutch wikipedia contains over a million sentences, so it's taking a while. I'm trying to debug it and optimise it as it runs - one of the wonders of LISP is that you can do that - while I listen to my iPod. Then, Peter Gabriel's We do what we're told comes on.

Simple lyrics for such a depressing song. Anyway, I typed the title into Google to see what would come of it, and I found this book review over at LRB. It seems this last 20th of December was the 20th anniversary of the death of Stanley Milgram, someone I haven't thought about since I was an undergrad. According to LRB, a biography of Milgram has recently been published.

Milgram is responsible, among other things, for the notion of six degrees of separation. But his most famous work is the infamous Milgram experiment. In the words of LRB reviewer Jenny Diski:

Milgram advertised for his subjects in the New Haven Register (Yale students were considered too aggressive to use), and paid them $4 for their hour's attendance plus 50 cents' travel allowance. Only males (except in one variation) were used, and they spanned occupational levels from unskilled to professional. Each subject sat alone at a fake 'shock machine' built by Milgram, which had 30 switches, labelled in 15-volt increments from 15 volts to 450 volts and grouped in fours, with descriptions above each group: slight shock, moderate shock, strong shock, very strong shock, intense shock, extreme intensity shock, danger severe shock. The final two switches were labelled just xxx. Each subject was told they were participating in a 'Memory Project', the aim of which was to study how people learn. They were 'teachers'. In an adjoining room a 'learner' sat wired up to the shock machine. He had to repeat the second of pairs of words he was supposed to have learned. The 'teacher' cued with the first word. An incorrect answer was punished with an electric shock. With each wrong answer the 'teacher' was instructed to move up a switch. The learner, who was, of course, a member of Milgram's team, could be heard but not seen, and as the switches were flipped, he began complaining until, at the higher voltages, he screamed in agony and begged the subject not to hurt him, demanding his right to be let out. In addition to hearing the pain they were inflicting, the subjects were told that the learner had a heart condition. Any reluctance was met by the experimenter saying in authoritative tones: 'Please go on.' After three prompts, the subject was told: 'You have no choice, you must go on.' If the subject refused after the fourth prompt, the experiment was stopped. In some of the variations, after the 300-volt shock the learner pounded on the wall, and then after 315 volts remained totally silent.

Overall, 65 per cent of subjects were prepared to administer the 450-volt shock, not once, but several times. They sweated, they groaned, they queried, but when told they had to do it 'for the experiment', they flipped the switch.

LRB does not miss the connection to Iraq:

Between knowing ourselves and change, lay the chasm of how change might come about. An ill-digested Freudianism suggested that only awareness was necessary for the great catharsis. Bring the dark out into the light, show what is hidden, and all will be well. You have to become aware of what you (that is, we) are like and then, somehow, you (that is, we) will be different. [...] We must learn from this, Milgram said; we all said. But no one said how we were supposed to learn from it. It seemed it should have been obvious.

Plainly, it wasn't. In spite of the atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, this very year, politicians and public alike in the US and the UK declared themselves baffled, disbelieving and amazed that American and British soldiers could torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. They meant, usually, American and British soldiers. Not even the elementary lesson Milgram had to teach has been absorbed. [...] [A]nyone [who] believes there is an inherently moral distinction which can be defined geographically or racially means people just haven't been paying attention to what the 20th century - of which the Milgram study was little more than a reiteration and foreshadowing - made hideously clear. Tell people to go to war, and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will. Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work. Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this country did not want to join the US in making war on Iraq. This country joined the US in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. The dissenters marched and argued and put posters up in their windows, but... Great passions were aroused, and yet... For the past eighteen months, the Independent newspaper has been producing astonishing front pages to make you weep, still... It all happened, and goes on. [...] Civilisation depends on most of us doing what we are told most of the time. Real civilisation, however, depends on Milgram's 35 per cent who eventually get round to thinking for themselves.

But that, too, is a lazy, sentimental attitude. The 65/35 per cent split between the compliant and the resistant is just another version of good and bad, and leaves us essentially ignorant and free to declare our particular righteousness. Bush can take Milgram's division to signify Americans and Terrorists; bin Laden can use it to denounce the evil West to the Followers of Allah; Hitler to set Germans against Jews; Zionists to divide Jews from Palestinians. And Milgram is no help at all.

This casts some light on a recent Get Your War On:

Is it possible people reelected Bush for no better reason than because he told them to? Does the man actually project enough authority, in this age of compliant media, to actually get away with that? Milgram said 65% of us are just too weak to say no to authority, no matter how our consciences may feel about it. Bush didn't even need all their votes to win.

Depressing stuff. I think I have an all Kylie playlist on this iPod. I think maybe it's time to switch over to it.

Posted 2005/01/05 15:39 (Wed) | TrackBack

Which Lisp do you use? I'm writing a lot of XEmacs code recently, and the Common Lisp compatibility libraries there are selling that language quite well . (Why isn't (dotimes ...) available in any other language? Why doesn't anything else move to multiple-precision number representations when numbers overflow?)

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at January 5, 2005 22:05

We're working in Allegro 6.2. CMU Lisp doesn't cut it for our needs and the mini-Lisps are even worse. Plus, we have easy access to Java and C libraries on UNIX this way.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 6, 2005 9:58

Oh, of course, you mentioned Allegro before.

(Excuse my comments bearing almost no relation to the main body of your post, but I've tuned to Kylie already, though she sounds disturbingly like an older Manu Chao album ;-)

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at January 7, 2005 0:11

The comment about Yale students being too aggressive rang a bell with me. A lot of education today involves decontexting, deconventionalizing, and de-ethicalizing life, in the service of professionalism and personal ambition. With the exception of some Christian rightists, the nastiest right-wingers I run into are highly educated.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 7, 2005 4:33

Aidan, no problem. I don't think I've heard Manu Chao sing since his Mano Negra days and my Montreal days. I see from the 'Net that he's back.

Zizka (John?) I've had the same experience. It's as if the discovery that being on the right could justify the sort of narrow perspective that college was supposed to wring out of you.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 7, 2005 17:12
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