Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Undue Influence and Democracy
In 1955, Solomon Asch, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, performed an interesting experiment which demonstrated the existence of a powerful force at work in groups ... a force that likely had been suspected for many years but stood in need of empirical verification. Ostensibly, the Asch experiment was a simple perceptual task.
Four lines were presented on two viewing cards. One card displayed just one line, while the other card displayed three lines.
The lone line on one of the two cards was the ‘standard line.’ The three lines on the second card were of different lengths, and they were the ‘comparison lines.’
Subjects were required to judge which of the ‘comparison lines’ was a match for the ‘standard line.’ When subjects performed the experiment in the absence of other people, they were able to identify the correct match more than 99% of the time.
However, when other people were present and involved in the task, some rather startling results emerged. More specifically, if there were a group of five to seven people who were all required to identify the correct match on any given trial, and if the first five or six people (depending on the size of the group) misidentified the correct match, the last person to give an answer quite frequently also misidentified the correct match in one-third of the trials.
As it turns out, the first five-to-six individuals in the experiment that provided answers to the perceptual task were ‘confederates.’ In other words, those individuals had been provided with a script by the people running the experiment which told the confederates to intentionally misidentify the correct match on certain occasions.
For each subject, there were 18 trials that involved the perceptual matching task. In six of those trials, the confederates answered correctly, while in the other 12 trials, the confederates gave incorrect answers.
When those confederates gave the correct answer, the experimental subject – the one who went last – also would give the correct answer. Yet, when those confederates provided an incorrect answer, then errors tended to be committed by the experimental subjects.
Irrespective of whether, or not, the subject gave a correct or incorrect response in such cases, their body language and behavior clearly indicated that when they were faced with the prospect of having to go against group opinion, the situation tended to be stressful to them. Some people allowed the stress, and associated social forces, to sway their answer.
Overall, 24% of the subjects did not go along with the confederates during any of the 12 trials in which incorrect answers were given by the confederates. 75% of the subjects went along with the incorrect ‘judgments’ of the confederates at least one or more times. 5% of the subjects followed the incorrect responses of the confederates on each of the 12 instances in which the latter individuals gave incorrect answers.
Collectively considered, the subjects matched the incorrect responses of the experimental collaborators one-third of the time. Some of the subjects who gave incorrect answers were aware of doing so, but later on, when they were interviewed by the experimenters, they indicated they didn’t want to ‘rock the boat,’ or create conflict. Other subjects who gave incorrect answers subsequently claimed that they were not aware of doing so and attributed their mistakes to poor eyesight.
Asch discovered that there were different structural factors which seemed to impact the experiment. For example, when the incorrect response of the confederates was not unanimous, the number of subjects who would comply with the response of the majority dramatically decreased to between 5 and 10% of the overall number of trial responses involving incorrect answers -- down from the one-third percentage noted earlier.
If even one confederate gave a response that was different from the other confederates, subjects were more likely to provide a correct match in the perceptual task. This was true quite independently of whether, or not, the dissenting response involved a correct match between the ‘standard line’ and the ‘comparison line’ ... in other words, dissent rather than correctness seemed to be the deciding factor.
The Asch experiment involved a simple, objective perceptual task in which the difference between the incorrect lines among the ’comparison lines’ and the standard line was so clear that subjects only missed identifying the correct match in less than 1% of the cases. What if the task were something that was: More complicated, less ‘objective,’ while also being more emotionally and psychologically engaging?
The foregoing questions were often asked of my students during the introductory psychology courses which I taught. The same questions can be directed to the American public.
In 2003, Tony Smith, who played basketball for Manhattanville College, demonstrated his disapproval of the forthcoming invasion of Iraq by standing sideways rather than face the U.S. flag during the national anthem. When he did this at the arena for an opposing team, the people in the crowd began chanting: “Leave the country.”
In 1991, during the first Gulf War, Marco Lokar, who was from Italy and played basketball for Seton Hall, refused to wear the American flag on his uniform as an indication of his opposition to the war. Some of the individuals who attended Seton Hall basketball games exhibited behavior that became so abusive that Lokar actually did leave America and returned to Italy.
The 1991 Persian Gulf War was predicated on a variety of disinformation and lies. First, the alleged atrocities of Iraqi troops with respect to incubator babies in Kuwait did not take place, but, instead, it was a publicity stunt dreamed up by Americans and Kuwaitis in order, among other things, to persuade the United States Congress to support hostilities against Iraq.
Secondly, prior to the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein asked the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq what the view of America was concerning Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait, and April Glaspie, the ambassador, indicated that Arab-Arab conflicts – such as the one between Iraq and Kuwait – were of no concern to the United States. Whether intended or not, the communication was interpreted by Saddam Hussein as indicating that the U.S. would not interfere with the dispute.
Thirdly, while it is true that Saddam Hussein attacked and killed thousands of his own people, this is not the whole story. In those attacks, he used biological and chemical weapons which had been supplied to him by, among others, the United States.
When Winston Churchill advocated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis in 1920 that act, apparently, was the action of a civilized country. When Hussein did so with U.S. assistance in 1988, this became evidence which demonstrated what kind of a pathological monster Hussein was.
The act of gassing the Kurds was pathological. However, the United States government was complicit in that pathology, just as the British government committed pathological behavior in the earlier case involving Iraq.
When Iraq served U.S. ‘national interests’ by engaging with Iran in an eight year bloodbath, the United States government supported Iraq militarily and financially – except, of course, in the little matter of the Iran-Contra scandal in which the United States illegally sold arms to Iran in order to get cash to illegally help the Contras who were fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. When Iraq began to go ‘off the reservation’ in 1990, by, among other things, seeking to move the world away from using the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort, Saddam Hussein had to be schooled in the etiquette of world politics ... and, as is usually the case in those kinds of affairs, the lesson plan was imposed on, and subsidized by, the people of Iraq rather than its ‘leaders.’
In 2003, Iraq again had to be taught a harsh lesson. Despite having nothing to do with 9/11 and despite having no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq was invaded by the United States – euphemistically referred to as a ‘coalition’ – and much of the physical, economic, political, medical, financial, and social infrastructure of Iraq was destroyed ... twelve years later, Iraq is still trying to recover from the ‘dogs of war’ that were unleashed by the United States upon that country in 2003.
The people who induced Italian Marco Lokar to leave the United States in early 1991 and who wanted Tony Smith to leave America in 2003 were like the subjects in the Asch experiment. The former individuals who accepted or complied with the media accounts concerning Iraq in relation to what, supposedly, was taking place in that country during 1991 or 2003 either suspected that they were not being told the truth about Iraq but did not want to ‘rock the boat,’ or those ‘subjects’ were individuals whose judgment concerning Iraq was totally shaped by the misinformation and disinformation which was being fed to the public by the government . The U.S. government played the role of experimenters who were controlling what was taking place in the lab (i.e., the United States arena of public opinion) and who were inducing the confederate media to distribute propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation to the public (i.e., the subjects).
Propaganda, disinformation and misinformation don’t have to convince everyone in order to be effective. If one has – in line with Asch’s much simpler perceptual task – a third of the people who are willing, for one reason or another, to go along with the stories being spun by the government and/or the media, then one has created a powerful advocacy group for trying to impose – if not enforce -- certain kinds of ideas, values, and behavior on the rest of society.
Moreover, when ‘objective’ tasks are being engaged – for example, the line-matching task of Asch’s experiment – the presence of even one voice of dissent can often be enough to permit subjects to break free of the social influence of other members of a group who are giving misinformation. However, when one is dealing with issues – e.g., Iraq in 1991 and 2003 – that are difficult to sort out in order to know where the truth might reside, the presence of dissent might only complicate, if not confuse, matters.
When conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty are high, many people often tend to adopt coping strategies which are likely to entail the least amount of problems ... even if such coping strategies tend to be flawed in various ways and even if the projected number of problems is only apparent and not necessarily accurate. In many political/economic issues, the least problematic path is usually to side with ‘the way of power’ because that way has the capacity to inflict punishment on those who are not prepared to ‘get with the institutional program.’
If the subjects in the Asch experiment refused to go along with the disinformation and misinformation being supplied by the confederates, no physical or financial or political penalty would be imposed on them. The situation tends to be quite different in the world beyond the psychology lab.
Moreover, in the Asch experiment, none of the confederates overtly interfered with any of the subjects as they were making their judgments about which of the ‘comparison lines’ matched the’ standard line.’ If, on the other hand, a person were besieged by the comments and behavior of others who were seeking to influence one’s judgment – as often occurs in real life -- this might affect not only the process of arriving at a judgment but, as well the character of that judgment.
There are a variety of conditions that tend to increase the likelihood that the phenomenon of compliance will occur. For instance, the more attractive a group’s status is perceived to be, the more likely it is that an individual will become vulnerable to going along with the group view.
Groups that are perceived as being powerful, influential, wealthy, patriotic, or winners are very attractive to many people – quite irrespective of whether, or not, that group is dedicated to truth or justice. In addition, to be considered an ‘outsider’ in relation to those sorts of groups is a very difficult psychological and emotional situation with which to deal ... circumstances that many people try to avoid.
Furthermore, if one lives in a culture in which one is, from an early age, socialized to have respect for certain standards/values/ideas, then this condition tends to render people more inclined to comply with the standard of judgment to which the surrounding group gives expression. In fact, despite the prevailing mythology that the United States is all about individualism, there is a very strong set of social currents in the United States – sent in motion quite early in life – that is intended to inculcate a deep, sometimes unquestioning, respect in the generality of people in relation to so-called ‘leaders’ – whether governmental, educational, legal, medical, scientific or corporate in nature.
Another factor affecting the issue of compliance involves the issue of the degree to which one’s behavior is observed by others. We all engage in various forms of consequential calculus in which we attempt to estimate the social risks and benefits for behaving in certain ways ... especially when we know that such behavior might be observed by other people.
Moreover, when people can be induced to feel insecure or incompetent in various ways, the likelihood increases that those people will become inclined to comply with group values and standards. This factor can become quite significant when the issues being considered are uncertain, ambiguous, or complicated, and someone uses that sort of uncertainty or ambiguity to attack another person’s sense of security or competency concerning those matters in order to induce the latter individual to comply with the perspective of the group.
Finally, the likelihood of someone’s being willing to adopt the group perspective increases in situations where an individual has not made any previous commitment to a given position. In other words, the default position for many people who really don’t know much about a given subject area or who haven’t thought about those issues very much often tends to coalesce around the group perspective ... which is why propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation can be so effective in shaping people’s ideas, views and values with respect to current events ... events that people have not had much of an opportunity to learn about or reflect upon in a way which is independent from the influence of vested interests.
The basketball fans who riled away at Tony Smith in 1991 and Marco Lokar in 2003 were the experimental subjects whose ideas had been shaped not by facts but by a variety of social forces that had been set in motion by a group of experimenters and their confederates – namely, government, the educational system and the media. Those fans were merely doing what they had been unthinkingly induced to do by an array of social forces that shape, color and orient the everyday lives and understanding of millions of people across the United States.
All war is an exercise in terrorism. The object of war is to induce one’s opponents – whether soldiers or civilians – to become so psychologically overwhelmed by the horror of destruction, or the threat of destruction, that they will surrender ... there is a reason why the opening salvoes of the 2003 Iraq were referred to as ‘shock and awe.’
Everyone who participates in, or supports the conduct of, war is a terrorist. They all wish to strike terror into the hearts of their ‘alleged’ enemies.
One of the enduring campaigns of propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation undertaken by successive governments of the United States – as well as most, if not all, other countries – is to persuade citizens that when one goes to war, one will be fighting evil, injustice, and oppression, and, yet, the inherent nature of war – no matter what the underlying intentions are claimed to be -- is to give destructive expression to the very horrors it is intended to combat. In addition, the issues and circumstances that lead to war are almost invariably a function of the manner in which the respective ways of power on all sides of a conflict have greased the skids toward armed conflict.
People do, I believe, have a right (and this is inherent in the basic notion of sovereignty that has been developed through the postings of the last year, or so) to repel direct attacks against their own lives or the lives of their family and community. However, whether, or not, that kind of a right is exercised, or should be exercised, is a separate matter, and, in addition, the idea of preventative war – that is, attacking a country simply because one believes that country might, at some point in the future, constitute a threat – does not qualify as an instance of being directly attacked since it is entirely hypothetical in character.
Moreover, the conceptual slope between self-defense and the terrors of war is a very slippery one. Once a course of action is undertaken, preventing it from destructively spreading in all directions in uncontrollable and unimagined ways can become a very difficult, if not impossible, process.
Who would have thought that the simple expression of an opinion – for example, standing sideways during the playing of the national anthem or refusing to wear an American flag on one’s uniform in order to oppose the terror which was to be unleashed upon the Iraqi people – should be so upsetting to people who live in the land of the free consisting of – allegedly -- the most knowledgeable, compassionate, friendly, humane, understanding, and caring people to ever grace the face of the Earth. On the other hand, falsehood tends to give rise to a great deal of untenable ugliness, and the perpetrators of falsehood, propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation understand this fact very well ... indeed, they count on it, for this is one of the fundamental methods through which the way of power controls what is, and is not, permitted to take place in society.
The idea of ‘brainwashing’ found its way into the public lexicon in 1950. Edward Hunter wrote an article for the Miami News, and during the article, he used the term to give expression to the Chinese idea of ‘hsi-nao’ or ‘cleansing the mind.’
Hunter was attempting to alert people in the United States about an insidious social and psychological process that, reportedly, was being used by the Chinese in order to alter the way people thought, felt, and behaved. According to the article, the way in which people were induced to join the Communist party was through the technique of brainwashing.
What the article did not say is that Hunter worked for the CIA. He was a specialist in issues of propaganda, and he was using a scare story about Chinese brainwashing as a Trojan horse for introducing his own set of mind- and attitude-shaping techniques into the public arena of America.
Hunter wanted his readers to begin to engage information concerning world events through his filters rather than through those of the Chinese Communists. However, irrespective of whether one is an operative of the CIA or of the Chinese Communists, when a person uses techniques that are designed to prevent people from critically reflecting on a given situation or intended to prevent those individuals from becoming aware of how they are being subjected to forces of manipulation, the methods are abusive and reprehensible.
Although the idea of ‘brainwashing’ often has become entangled in a mythology which tends to attribute rather magical, all-powerful, irresistible properties to the process, the bottom line is that ‘brainwashing’ is one possibility among an array of processes which have the intention of altering people’s ideas, values, beliefs, sense of identity, and behavior. ‘Propaganda’, ‘indoctrination’, ‘advertising’, ‘conditioning,’ ‘socialization,’ ‘training’, ‘therapy’, ‘marketing’, ‘framing,’ ‘the media’, ‘interrogation,’ ‘torture,’ and ‘education are related ideas because all of the foregoing terms have one thing in common – they are attempting to affect the way the ‘target’ audience – whether one person or many -- understands and engages the world.
Many accounts of brainwashing emphasized the physical means that were used to try to break people and render them emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally malleable with respect to whatever a ‘subject’s hosts’ wished to impose on that individual. For instance, those accounts often spoke about: Sleep deprivation; being required to adopt stress positions for extended periods of time; exposure to stimulus overload in the form of repetitive, loud, annoying sounds; being subject to sensory deprivation; the use of heat and cold to wear down resistance; reduced calorie intake, and so on.
However, physical abuse does not necessarily constitute an inherent component of any attempt to bring about changes in another’s person’s beliefs, values, ideas, and behaviors. One also could bring about those sorts of changes through not only manipulating people’s vulnerability to factors involving: Social contact, approval, consensual validation, sense of identity, hope, guilt, ambition, group pressure, self-interest, anxiety, uncertainty, reward contingencies, and emotional dependency but, as well, by manipulating the nature of the information people are given in order to form judgments that generate behavior.
Edward Hunter, the aforementioned journalist/CIA operative used nothing more than carefully constructed information as his preferred technique of inducing changes in his reader’s perception about themselves, China, Communism and America. The process of education does something very similar in nature.
For example, one technique used by the Chinese Communists would require people to participate in their own process of transformation. The individuals running the conversion process would not only force people to listen to various lectures, but, as well, the ‘leaders’ would require the participants to respond to those lectures both verbally and in writing.
Those responses either would be critiqued by the leader of the group or the various members of the group would be induced to criticize one another with respect to those assignments. In addition, the foregoing process would be repeated, and individuals would, from time to time, be required to demonstrate to the leader of the group that this or that principle had been mastered.
The foregoing arrangement sounds an awful lot like compulsory education. Students, under threat of punishment, are required to attend daily lectures and engage those lessons in a manner which is pleasing to the group leader – usually referred to as a teacher.
Children are put in competition with one another to win the favor of the teacher and other administrators. Students are often encouraged to criticize one another.
Lessons are repeated through seemingly endless homework assignments which must be mastered in written and verbal formats. Tests are given to ensure that one is learning what is being demanded of one in a way that meets with the approval of the teacher.
If one does not please the group leader in any of the foregoing tasks, one is subject to disciplinary treatment. Or, one is ridiculed in front of the other students ... a technique used to great effect by the Chinese Communists.
A student’s sense of personal worth and identity -- just as is true in a Communist re-education program -- is constantly under pressure – both by the teachers and administrators, as well as by other students. The individual is constantly being pulled and pushed in different directions by a variety of social, psychological, and emotional forces ... all intended to induce individuals to become compliant with respect to someone else’s agenda – that of a group ‘leader’, and/or a student ‘leader’, and/or a community ‘leader’, and/or a religious ‘leader.’
Surely, someone might object, there is a huge difference between what goes on within the American educational system and what goes on in, say, a Communist re-educational program. For instance, American students learn about the truth, whereas the people in the Communist system learn falsehoods.
I’ve never seen the study which demonstrates, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the foregoing is true. People in America, in their own self-serving manner, assume this to be the case, but they can’t prove it.
One can talk about the many atrocities of: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, or any number of other Communist leaders – and I have never been a fan of Communism, feeling, among other things that much of its theoretical framework (e.g., historical materialism), along with its social excesses, are, respectively, neither tenable nor justifiable. However, unfortunately, one also can match the foregoing atrocities with the many instances of American terror which have been perpetuated in relation to, for example: Indians, Blacks, women, poor people, Hiroshima, Tokyo, Dresden, Hamburg, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Central America, and Palestine.
Millions of innocent people within, and beyond, the United States have not been killed and brutalized by Americans for the sake of truth – which even if this were so (which it is not) would be unacceptable – but, rather, innocent people have been slaughtered for the sake of: Power, control, resources, profits, and terrorizing whole populations. However, Americans are socialized and educated to believe that what Tony Smith did in 2003 – protest an unjust war in Iraq– and Marco Lokar did in 1991 – protest an unjust war in Iraq – and what I did in 1968 – protest an unjust war in Vietnam -- are despicable betrayals of American values, while the destruction of innocent people and societies by Americans is an exercise in glorious patriotism that is making the world safe for democracy.
Welcome to the world of Orwell’s Newspeak, where ‘peace’ really means war, ‘freedom’ actually means oppression, and ‘truth’ stands for that which is false. However, because all too many ‘teachers’ and ‘administrators’ in the American educational system are fluent in the language of Newspeak, they have become like the ‘confederates’ in the Asch perception experiment that was discussed earlier and, therefore, are engaged in manipulating students – knowingly or unknowingly – through disinformation, misinformation, and outright falsehoods on behalf of those in government and commerce who are in control of the experimental lab called America.
Why is education compulsory in America? Or, perhaps, the question should be phrased somewhat differently – namely, why are governments the agencies that are making education compulsory?
There are many arguments which can be advanced with respect to why learning is important. Indeed, learning is at the heart of the basic right of sovereignty which involves having a fair opportunity to push back the horizons of ignorance concerning the nature of existence.
However, a process of education that is compelled by state governments tends to be a different matter. That kind of a compulsory system is intended to serve the political, economic, social, and/or religious agenda of those who are in control of the way of power that renders education a compulsory activity, and, therefore, whatever learning takes place within that system is not necessarily about pushing back the horizons of ignorance concerning the nature of reality or one’s relationship with reality but is, instead, a function of the interests of the way of power.
Under the provisions of the Philadelphia Constitution, education is not an enumerated power of the federal government, nor is it prohibited to the state governments. The 9th and 10th Amendments indicate that: (a) The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people; (b) The powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to it by the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
While states – within determinate limits -- might have the power to implement and administer educational programs, there is nothing in the Constitution which indicates that states should either have exclusive authority over education or that they should have the right to compel people to be educated. To give states priority in the matter of education, would be to “deny or disparage” other rights – in violation of the 9th Amendment -- that are retained by the people but which have not been enumerated in the Philadelphia Constitution, and as well, giving states exclusive priority in the matter of education would also be in violation of the wording of the 10th Amendment which indicates that whatever powers are not delegated to the federal government or prohibited to the states are reserved for the states “or to the people.”
People have a legal standing within the context of the amended-Constitution that is independent of the states. In fact, the first ten amendments – that is, the so-called Bill of Rights – are entirely about the rights of people. The 10th Amendment does not suddenly deprive people of rights or power but, rather, indicates that either: (a) the states – considered as one expression of ‘We the People’ -- have certain rights reserved for the people of those states, and/or (b) the states, considered as agencies acting on behalf of the people, as well as the people considered apart from the states, both have a legitimate claim with respect to those powers that are not delegated to the federal government or prohibited to the states.
If the term “states” in the Tenth Amendment meant precisely the same thing as “or to the people,” then, the amendment is unnecessarily repetitious unless it was confirming that the ultimate owners of the sort of powers that are being alluded to belong, first and foremost, to the people. In other words, either the 10th Amendment is unnecessarily repetitious, or a distinction is being made which confirms that irrespective of whether ‘people’ are considered as part of a state, or considered independently from the state, they have certain powers which are reserved to them and which government -- of whatever kind -- cannot take away.
Since the phrase “or to the people” was suggested by (according to some) Roger Sherman and, then, accepted without discussion by the other people who were in attendance during the process of forging the first ten amendments, one cannot be quite certain what the individuals participating in the 1790 discussion had in mind. However, the fact is that -- in a very important sense -- what they might have thought is irrelevant because there is no non-arbitrary argument – that is, an argument which can be proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt -- that can be advanced which shows why anyone in twenty-first century America is obligated to act in accordance with what people In 18th-century America thought about things.
People have the right to have control over their learning process because this is inherent in the nature of basic sovereignty which pre-dates the Philadelphia Convention, the Philadelphia Constitution, the ratification process, and the Bill of Rights. Everyone has the right to have a fair opportunity to push back the horizons of ignorance concerning the nature of reality, as well as one’s relationship to that reality, and a learning process that is organized and compelled by governance – whether federal or state -- will not necessarily ensue such a fair opportunity because that educational process will tend to be biased by the interests of its own ‘way of power’ rather than ‘the way of sovereignty’ which is in the interests of the individual.
As noted earlier, the 9th and 10th amendments of the Philadelphia Constitution can be understood in a way that is consistent with the nature of basic sovereignty outlined above. However, if someone wishes to argue that the foregoing sort of meaning is inconsistent with what the Framers intended (and one would like to see the argument for that sort of perspective), then one can counter with the fact that people of today do not need to be bound by what those people intended since the dimension of obligation associated with that sort of an intention (whatever it might have been) cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be incumbent on the people of today.
Like the Chinese Communist process of re-education – which is a way of power -- the notion of compulsory education in America – which is also a way of power – is intended to force people to be complicit in their own conceptual and ideological conversion in order to serve the purposes of ideologically-driven governance. The way of power – whether Chinese or American in character – does not want people to be in control of their own learning processes ... people must be ‘educated’ in accordance with the hermeneutical template set down by the ‘way of power.’
In 1967 Martin Seligman and Steve Maier conducted an experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. Like the experiments performed by Stanley Milgram (memory/learning/punishment) and Philip Zimbardo (prisoners), the Seligman/Maier experiment would not be permitted in today’s ethical environment that establishes the conditions under which proposed experiments are either approved or not approved.
The Seligman/Maier investigation involved dogs, and their experiment was divided into two stages. Without becoming too engrossed in the details, the first step produced three kinds of dogs – (a) dogs that were put into a harness arrangement for a period of time, and then released; (b) dogs that were put in the same sort of harness, shocked (unlike the Milgram experiment, the shocks were real) and, then, permitted to learn how to stop the shocks; (c) dogs that were put in a harness, shocked, and, then not permitted to learn how to stop the shocks ... in fact, for these dogs, there seemed to be no discernible pattern to the shocks or any way to control them.
In the second stage of the experiment, all three groups of dogs were run through a large box-like structure consisting of two chambers divided by a partition that the dogs easily could jump over. The floor of the first chamber of the box was electrified, and the shocks delivered in that room could be escaped if the dogs jumped over the partition to a ‘safe’ room.
Group (a) and (b) dogs quickly learned how to escape the shocks that were delivered in the first room. Group (c) dogs – the ones that were never permitted to learn how to control the shocks which were delivered to them in the first stage of the experiment – tended to lie down in a corner of the electrified room and merely whimper as the shocks continued to be delivered. Even when group (c) dogs were dragged across the partition and shown that they would be free from shocks in the second room, many of the group (c) dogs would not exhibit escape behavior when placed back in the first compartment but, instead, would, once again, lie down and whimper while being shocked.
Seligman referred to the behavior of the group (c) dogs as “learned helplessness.” In other words, after these dogs learned in the first stage of the experiment that nothing they did seemed to be effective in stopping or controlling the shocks being delivered to them, then when it came to the second part of the experiment, those dogs tended not to take advantage of the opportunity to escape ... either on their own, or when they were shown how to do so by the experimenters.
The experiment had been undertaken as part of Seligman’s study of the phenomenon of depression. He felt that the idea of learned helplessness might apply to what had taken place in the life of human beings who later suffered from clinical depression.
Whether, or not, learned helplessness constitutes part of the phenomenology of depression, that concept might apply to other facets of human existence. For example, the experience of some individuals in the educational system seems to entail characteristics of learned helplessness.
More specifically, those people are put into a harness – i.e., compulsory education – and shocked in a variety of ways (emotionally, psychologically, socially, or academically) over the years by: Parents, other students, teachers, homework, tests, grades, and administrators. For some of the foregoing students, nothing they do seems to enable them to gain control over (that is, develop effective coping strategies with respect to) the various kinds of shocks which are delivered through the educational system ... everything appears to be so random and uncontrollable.
In effect, they seem to have acquired or learned a form of helplessness which is debilitating. As a result, many of them give up, lie down somewhere in a corner of their lives, and just whimper as shocks are delivered.
I have encountered the foregoing sorts of students in my classroom. Within the boundaries of what I could do as an instructor, I found that almost nothing I did appeared to make much, if any, academic difference in the lives of those kinds of individuals.
Of course, psychology is not everyone’s cup of tea. Therefore, one has to factor in this issue to get a better idea of which students seemed to be suffering from learned helplessness and which students were either uninterested in, or bored by, the topic of psychology.
However, without trying to water-down the curriculum, I developed a technique of teaching that permitted the bored and uninterested students to escape the shock of poor grades ... although, sometimes, just barely. However, the students whom I suspected were debilitated with learned helplessness would not take any of the avenues of escape which were provided to them ... no matter how simple and accessible those pathways might be.
These latter students were not dumb. They were decent kids.
They didn’t act out in class. They often came to school on a regular basis.
I did the educational equivalent of dragging these kids across the partition that separated the room of shocks from the room of ‘safety’ (passing grades). However, eventually, these youngsters would merely do the human equivalent of lying down on the floor and whimpering when, once again, they found themselves placed back in the room of shocks with respect to tests, papers, and class participation.
One could argue that those students do not belong in school, and there is something to be said for this kind of a perspective. At the same time, those students have been, and are being, marked with an indelible ink (grades), and many of the things which they can, and can’t do, later in life will be affected by the presence of those marks.
Trying to determine what happened to the foregoing students and what helped bring them to such a condition is a complex issue. However, whatever the causes might be – and, I suspect those causes are quite varied in some ways and quite similar in other respects – at some point the foregoing students chose to cede their agency and permit the system to take them in whatever direction the existential currents were flowing, no matter what the nature of the shocks might be that were delivered ... they permitted the system to engage them, but they stopped engaging the system because trying to do so seemed to make no sense or did not lead to results that, to a degree, could be controlled by the students.
Blaming those students for their own plight is a tempting thing to do, and, undoubtedly, they did – and do – have a role to play in why their condition is the way it is. However, I have had over fifty years of experience in many different facets of the educational system, and during that time, I have seen any number of: intellectually abusive teachers, arrogant administrators, bullies – both students and school officials -- and closed-minded ‘educators’ ... the sorts of individuals who could make the lives of some individuals a living hell of constant shocks that might, eventually, induce someone to lie down amidst such an onslaught and just whimper.
The informational content of education – about which one might have many concerns – is always filtered through the structure of education – which entails an entirely different set of concerns. The structural process of schooling is capable of filtering information in a variety of ways that are both quite independent of the content of education, as well as in ways that impact on that content.
Sometimes what is learned from the phenomenology of schooling has much more to do with the structural character of that process than it does with any academic content which is channeled through that program. For instance, among other possibilities, one is taught to become subservient to a process that is controlled by other people for purposes that are not necessarily one’s own, and one is taught -- as The Borg might say -- that ‘resistance is futile’ ... or largely so.
One can swim upstream against the current. However, there is usually a considerable price to be paid for those sorts of actions, and there is no guarantee that railing against the machine will, eventually, lead to success.
It took me sixteen years to get my doctorate (13 if one subtracts the three years spent obtaining a master’s degree). My biggest sin – or, at least, one of them -- was that I was unwilling to bow down to the alleged authority of professors concerning a variety of issues and play the academic ‘game’ in the way they considered to be appropriate.
They had control over my life, and they emphasized that point in any number of ways. I met students from other graduate departments who had encountered similar problems.
I remember seeing photocopies of an article that had been posted on a number of bulletin boards around the university. The article was about a former graduate student – living in California I believe -- who was being released from prison after serving 17 years, or so, for killing one of his professors. The number of years was circled in red, and a note – written in red marker ink -- was added in the margin to the right of the circled words which said, in effect: ‘Just think of it ... only 17 years.’
The posting didn’t give me any ideas about my professors. However, the posting did allude to the considerable amount of abuse that is taking place at all levels of the educational process.
Sometimes, students commit murder as a result of that abuse. Sometimes, they develop learned helplessness in relation to that abuse.
In my own case, a way to escape the abuse bubbled to the surface of my consciousness following a talk on science and spirituality that I gave at a university in Ottawa, Canada. After the talk, I met a physicist who I thought would make a great external examiner for my dissertation, and when he agreed to take on that role, I fired everyone on my thesis committee, cobbled together a new committee, and since my thesis was already written (it was actually the second dissertation that I had written, but my original thesis committee refused to read either one), I asked for, and was granted, the right to go directly to the oral defense of my dissertation.
The professors that I had kicked off my thesis committee, along with a number of other professors in my department, were all certain that I would not pass the oral exam. When I returned to my department, and they asked me about the results of the examination, the drop of their jaws in disbelief and consternation that resulted from my words of success was almost worth the 17-year wait.
There was, however, a cost. Although I eventually did find a job teaching various courses in psychology and did this for a number of years, nonetheless, being able to have the opportunity to gain tenure somewhere or secure a full-time job in teaching had pretty much been taken off the table.
In many ways, the deciding factor in the foregoing set of events – and there might be many reasons for why that factor was present – was fairly straightforward. I was not going to cede my moral and intellectual agency to people (professors and administrators) who might have had the power to do what they did, but they could not justify what they had been doing for so many years.
It was the same factor that surfaced when I was on the bus traveling to the Charlestown Naval Base in order to take a physical for the draft during the Vietnam War. Two or three individuals – and although I don’t know who they were, I owe them a lot -- were walking up and down the aisle of that bus as we were making the journey to the military base and indicating to the 30 or 40 other individuals on the bus that -- in effect and using my terminology -- we didn’t have to cede our moral and intellectual authority to people who could not justify what they were doing in Vietnam and elsewhere in the world ... and, in fact, we should not cede that authority to those people.
Learned helplessness involves, in part, the issue of foregoing our own sense of agency and permitting the agency of other people to impact our lives in potentially problematic ways. The person who is suffering from learned helplessness has been induced by a variety of events to believe that the exercise of his or her own agency will make no difference to the outcome of events, and, as a result, all the information that comes to the individual from the environment is filtered through the lenses of learned helplessness.
The classroom, however, is not the only place where the phenomenon of learned helplessness occurs. That phenomenon also shows up in social, economic and political spheres as well.
For example, many people have dropped out of the political process because that form of activity has taught them that, for the most part, no matter what they do, the nature of the political process will not change because it is completely entangled in: Vested interests, struggles for power, corruption, disinformation, corporate money, manipulation, dirty tricks, hypocrisy, misinformation, greed, ambition, lobbyists, and dishonesty. As a result, people retire to their corner of the room of political shocks, lie down, and whimper about the ways in which that process brings pain into their lives.
I don’t disagree with those people. Or, at least, I agree with their belief that the political process in America is not salvageable under the current set of arrangements, and that no matter what one does under those conditions, the individuals who are in power are unlikely to give up their control of a system that serves their purposes, and, therefore, it is in their interests to keep the political process in its current dysfunctional condition which renders it vulnerable to all manner of political, economic, financial, legal, and media forms of undue influence.
There is a very real sense in which democracy has become something of a cult in America. For example, like cults, so-called political leaders – some of them quite charismatic – often try to induce people to cede their moral, intellectual, and financial agency to one, or another, cause or ideology.
Like cults, the political parties often troll the waters of the disaffected and seek those who are going through various kinds of transitions in their lives – e.g., unemployment, loss of one’s home, divorce, rising costs, and education. These kinds of individuals are particularly vulnerable to becoming highly suggestible with respect to the ‘solutions’ that are being offered by this or that party or political organization.
Like cults, political parties often attempt to leverage and manipulate the fears, anxieties, uncertainties, and confusion of people. Like cults, the purpose of that leveraging and manipulation often is not to solve problems but to acquire power.
Like cults, political parties often seek to foster a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ Like cults, political organizations often attempt to forge a sense of ‘family-like’ community through which the individual develops some form of loyalty or obligation to the ‘leaders’ in exchange for having a sense of ‘belonging’ to something bigger than themselves.
Like cults, political leaders often seek to control the channel-ways of information flow and use this control to keep their followers in the dark about any number of issues. Moreover, like cults, when embarrassing ‘facts’ come to light, those ‘facts’ are re-framed and given another interpretation that is more favorable to the political leaders.
Like cults, political leaders often use a form of ‘love bombing.’ In politics this form of love bombing is known as ‘patriotism’.
Endorphins flow as a result of the ‘power’ and ‘glory’ that are associated with the manner in which a given cause, party, or organization gives expression to the superficial trappings of patriotism. As a result, leaders manipulate that endorphin flow (the same sort of high one gets when one’s team wins the Super Bowl or the world series or the Stanley Cup) through their speeches and writings by pressing all the right buttons through the use of words such as: ‘freedom,’ ‘rights,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘honor,’ ‘duty,’ ‘justice,’ and so on ... words which are ill-defined and mean many things to many people but, nonetheless -- due to years of classical and operant conditioning by politicians, the educational system, and the media -- stir the heart and soul whenever they are mentioned.
Like cults, political leaders and parties often play on people’s sense of guilt concerning the foregoing issues, and, then, use that guilt to fuel commitment to the cause or ideology that allegedly will assuage or redeem that guilt through accomplishment and victory. Like cults, political leaders and political organizations often create ‘true believers’ who will stick with the party no matter what nonsense the leader or organization utter and irrespective of whatever form of betrayal might be committed.
Like cults, political leaders, organizations, and parties often use disinformation, misinformation, propaganda and outright lies to shape the understanding of their followers. Like cults, political leaders, organizations, and parties often seek to induce their followers to filter information concerning national or world events through the ideological lenses that are provided to those followers.
Like cults, political leaders, organizations, and parties often denigrate anyone who does not agree with them. They tend to use techniques which are intended to attack the integrity, credibility, and sense of identity of their opponents ... and, frequently, this is done quite apart from whether, or not, those attacks are empirically justified.
Like cults, the followers of a given political ideology are often very resistant to any data which suggests that the cause to which those individuals are committed might be other that what they have been led to believe by their leaders. Like cults, the followers of those political ideologies all too readily become abusive toward anyone who is perceived to be a threat to their sense of ideologically-induced identity.
Like cults, political leaders and parties often like to create a condition of emotional and/or financial dependence in their followers with respect to the leader or party. This sort of dependency is used to forge feelings of duty, loyalty, and moral obligation in the followers.
Like cults, political leaders and parties often urge their followers to become willing to sacrifice their lives, resources, time, and families for the sake of the leader or party. Like cults, political leaders and parties encourage their followers to be willing to go to war to preserve the sanctity of their cause.
There are a variety of terms that might be used to describe the techniques which frequently are employed by cults and political leaders/parties. Some of the terms which allude to those techniques are: bounded choice, thought-reform, indoctrination, propaganda, undue influence, menticide, and information disease.
Irrespective of what word one uses to refer to those techniques, they all have a common purpose ... although the underling methods which are used to implement those techniques might differ considerably from case to case. That purpose is: To induce people to cede their moral and intellectual authority to a given individual, party, organization, or form of governance.
So-called representational democracy is nothing more, or less, than getting the electorate – or an appropriate percentage thereof – to cede the agency of the various members of that electorate to a given candidate. The problem with this is that very rarely, if ever, do those candidates represent the people who vote for them ... especially, when the aims and goals of that set of voters is diverse, if not contradictory, in nature.
No form of representational government is capable of representing the soul of another human being. Nevertheless, the idea of representational government is often predicated on such a myth, and, as a result, when a given representative fails to represent someone, people feel betrayed, and, as a result, become cynical toward, or disgruntled with, the process -- and the foregoing situation will invariably occur since such a representative will necessarily filter information through the lenses of his or her understanding of things and not, necessarily, through the understandings of her or his constituents.
The foregoing problem might, or might not be, an indication of personal failing on the part of any given representative. However, the foregoing issue definitely indicates that there is a structural flaw at the heart of the process of representational democracy.
In her book, Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against their Hidden Menace, Margaret Singer, now deceased, attempts to put forth an argument which purportedly shows how the Marine Corps differs from cults ... and she did this because when she gave talks on the subject of cults, she repeatedly ran into questions and comments concerning the cult-like character of the Marine Corps. Her perspective on the issue indicates that she might not have understood as much about the nature of cults as some people supposed was the case.
The following comments should be prefaced by several observations. First, wanting to defend America against armed invasion is a noble calling. Secondly, I am willing to grant that many, if not most, individuals who join the Marines do so out of honorable intentions. Thirdly, I believe that most individuals who want to become Marines believe they are serving the interests of: justice, liberty, democracy, and human rights. Fourthly, it takes courage to be willing to put one’s life and body on the line for one’s country and one’s fellow Marines.
Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, none of those observations precludes the possibility that the Marine Corp itself might be a cult. Many, if not, most of the people who join, say, spiritual or religious cults do so with noble and honorable intentions, and they believe they are serving the interests of truth, goodness, wisdom, and justice.
Moreover, many cult members are quite prepared to sacrifice themselves, their possessions, their money, their time, and their talents on the line for the sake of what they consider to be the truth. Marines are not the only individuals who have a willingness to sacrifice their personal interests for the sake of others.
The very first reason which Singer gives as to why the Marine Corps is not like a cult is because supposedly, unlike cults, Marines understand the nature of the organization they are joining, and, as a result, there are no secret aspects of that organization and Marines know what to expect. The fact of the matter is – and in another posting I referred to the perspective of Smedley Butler, a two-time medal of honor winner, in this regard – war is a racket, and, consequently, Marines do not necessarily know whose interests they are serving, and when they do have such an understanding, they often also tend to have some appreciation that those interests are not necessarily synonymous with justice, freedom, or democracy ... that war is a dirty, messy business in which the first casualty tends to be the truth.
Marines are trained to obey orders. Those orders are shaped by presidents, politicians, and military authorities who do not necessarily feel obligated to share their purposes and ideas with “grunts.”
Marines are trained to trust their superiors just as cult members are trained to do so. Marines are trained to follow orders without question, just as cult members are.
As is true in many cults, there are all kinds of secrets in the military. Secret operations, classified materials, information that is on a ‘need to know’ basis, and so on, are all part of military life – both within and outside of the Marine Corps.
Marines can be trained in the art and technology of killing. However, until a person has actually taken the life of another person, then contrary to what Singer claims, that individual cannot possibly know what to expect with respect to how one will emotionally and psychologically respond to that sort of an event, or what ramifications that kind of act will have on the rest of an individual’s life.
Moreover, the fact that Marines kill people is not necessarily a strong selling point with respect to the task of differentiating the Marine Corps from cults. After all, many cults – but not all – seek to use non-violent means to achieve their objectives.
According to Margaret Singer, another difference between the Marine Corps and cults is that physical fitness is encouraged for members of the USMC, but this is not the case with respect to cults. While it might be the case that some cults eschew physical activity, many cults actively engage their members in physical activity as both a way of breaking down their resistance in order to render those individuals more vulnerable to cult indoctrination, as well as to suppress the inclination of individuals to engage in critical reflection (i.e., they are too tired to think).
In addition, Singer claims that one of the differences between the Marine Corps and cults is that the USMC values rational behavior and independent thinking. Up to a point, she is probably right, but cults also encourage members to use their rational capacities for independent thinking as long as that activity serves the interests of the cult.
Beyond a certain point, however, that sort of rational, critical, independent thinking is not encouraged in either the Marine Corps or cults. For instance, killing people and destroying the infrastructure of a country might be very rational things to do within the context of a military operation, but that sort of an operation might not be very rational when it comes to finding the best way of solving the underlying problem in a non-violent fashion, and any Marine who insisted on the peaceful solution to all conflicts would not necessarily be considered either rational or an asset to the USMC, any more than a cult member who always advocated pursuing solutions that were antithetical to the cult’s raison d’état would be considered ‘rational’ and exhibiting good, independent thinking.
Singer believes that another difference between the Marine Corps and cults is that the USMC is not above the law of the land, whereas cults consider themselves to be above that law. This is a very sweeping statement, both with respect to the Marine Corps, as well as in relation to cults.
Many cults don’t necessarily consider themselves above the law, but, they do want to have equal protection under the law and sometimes feel that they are not always afforded equal treatment. Furthermore, there is the problem of determining whose interpretation of the law will be applied in any given instance and whether, or not, that kind of an interpretation is actually capable of being justified.
On the other hand, SOFA – Status of Forces Agreements – are often forced on countries and contain conditions that prevent American military personal – including Marines -- from being held accountable under the laws of the country in which they are stationed. Apparently, Americans believe they have the right to dictate to the rest of the world about what constitutes moral and immoral behavior or what does, and does not, constitute crimes for which one should be held accountable by people who are impartial in their judgments ... which is not what military legal proceedings necessarily involve.
Margaret Singer indicates that another difference between cults and the Marine Corps is that members of the USMC cannot be used in medical and psychological experiments without their informed consent. However, military personnel – including Marines -- have been repeatedly been put in harm’s way with respect to all manner of radiological (e.g., depleted uranium), chemical (e.g., Agent Orange), and biological (e.g., forced inoculations of unproven biological agents during several Gulf wars) experiments without their informed consent.
Moreover, with the exception of, perhaps, Jonestown, I am not aware of too many cults who have subjected their members to medical and psychological experiments without their informed consent ... unless, of course, one wishes to count meditation and chanting as instances of psychological experimentation – which raises a variety of interesting questions but does not necessarily meet the abusive standard which government officials set in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment when unsuspecting Black men went untreated for the disease, or the LSD experiments that the CIA performed on unsuspecting Canadians and graduate students in the United States.
Singer also believes that an important difference between the Marine Corps and cults is that, unlike cults, the USMC encourages its members to read, gain knowledge, take courses, or actively engage the sort of information that is available through Stars and Stripes or Armed Services Radio. However, once a Marine has gone through boot camp, everything that is read, heard, or learned is very likely engaged through the filters of the perspective of the USMC, and if it isn’t, then, for one reason or another, the USMC and such an individual are likely to part company in the not too distant future.
None of the foregoing considerations is intended either to denigrate Marines or serve as a form of advocacy for this or that cult. Nevertheless, I believe the foregoing comparisons indicate that there might be a lot more similarities between cults and the USMC than Singer was willing to acknowledge.
The term “deprogramming” is sometimes used to refer to the attempt of one, or more persons, to induce an individual who is part of a cult to begin to become aware of the techniques of undue influence that are being used, and have been used, by the cult to: recruit an individual, initiate that person into the cult, and, then, maintain such an individual within the sphere of influence of that cult. In fact, one could describe this posting, along with many others I have written on this blog, to be exercises in ‘deprogramming’ with respect to all those individuals who are entangled – willingly or otherwise -- in the cult which democracy has, to a great extent, become.