Monday, April 2, 2007

Getting started -- Introducing the Lucifer Effect

The above scene is from an early morning walk along a wetlands near my home here in the Willapa Watershed, not far from the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Washington State. It's a relatively benign yet richly vibrant ecosystem and a wonderful place to begin a contemplative mental journey. So that's why I've started this first post with it. Willapa is a local indigenous group's word that means "weeping forest."

I've begun this blog to consolidate a wide range of writings I've been doing over the past three years, much of it on the Thom Hartmann Message Board (linked in the right hand column). The writings have evolved into three major themes that I see integrally related in various ways. As I look at each of them seperately and together I discover connections that are the basis for explanatory narratives of what the U.S. has become today, and what it's about in the world, both domestically and internationally. I'm working on a main theme involving a U.S. geopolitical strategy of neoliberal globalization, focusing on the contemporary issues in the Middle East, with sub themes of authoritarianism, something called the unitary executive theory, and a form of governance that has elements of the loosely defined, general category we think of as democracy, but which involves a decisionmaking process by elected officials and their appointees, who together form an elite class in a society, and that governmental formula, as termed by some theorists now, I'll also call polyarchy. It's come to be associated with a more general policy making tool that began to be implemented in th 1980s called "democracy promotion." A similar frame for describing that tool can be found within a broad tradition labeled by many others more generally as liberal democracy, or liberalism, one form of which is neoliberalism. Polyarchy as I'll be using it is an identifiable subset of this more general category, so that's why it appeals to me at this point.

I'll be getting into all of it more in depth as I go along, but I wanted to introduce these basic parts of the thematic structure I'll be exploring to set a tone for myself here, as much as for anyone else who may stumble upon this. So that's what this blog will be about. It looks like it's going to function much like a written diary with a few bells and whistles. My goal is to weave a narrative of related themes through essays I will be publishing frequently -- to the extent circumstances permit, daily.

Here's my preliminary proposition for a discussion about the effects of institutions on human behavior; imbedded in this discussion are themes of authoritarianism, which bears directly on questions I raise about the extent and nature of the peculiar arrangement of democracy in the U.S. This lead issue involves the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment and I'm spinning off the title of Zimbardo's recently published book on his experiment:

Topic: The Lucifer Affect

I've been interested in authoritarianism in one way or another since my experience in the military during the Vietnam War. At the time, the term itself was not familiar to me, but its nature in the institutions I'd experienced up until then was. My experience before entering the service was primarily in the institution of public education as a student. This was a situation I essentially tolerated with the knowledge that it would one day come to an end and I would then be "free" as my young imagination saw it, to finally live life. All the circumstances that came up around the fact of my finding myself entering military service, and then the features of the institution itself that I found myself adapting to, brought about a disturbing awareness in the form of what I'd have to call now, cognitive dissonance. My imagined sense of what was available to me as an adult, in what I was looking forward to as my release into an open and now accessible world, and what life really would entail for me in that world, suddenly did not seem to have a good matching overlay anymore with what I was experiencing. And as I think back on it now, it was the institutionalization of authority itself, in the military, that brought me to a very real psychological crisis. I'll leave that there, for now. I expect I'll pick it up later. I just wanted to raise the issue, since I suspect it's familiar to just about everyone in some way, to illustrate where I first became aware that I needed to come to an understanding about something I became vaguely aware was far more complex than anything I'd imagined, and that was what I am now referrng to as authoritarianism.

The topic I’m introducing relates to institutionalization of power and authority in society and its potential psychological affect on each of us. Integral with this is our permission both for our own acknowledgement and acceptance of this form and our adherence to it, and for others to play out their acknowledged roles in this form. When this no longer happens smoothly and without conscious questions, serious difficulties can arise in the processes of daily existence. I believe we all owe it to ourselves to explore what that means.

Surely many of us have heard in one way or another about the renowned Stanford Prison Experiment. That experiment raised some serious questions about the institutionalization of power and inherent features built into institutional power that appear to effect behavior, potentially in all of us, in ways that are not necessarily obvious. It can raise some very serious questions about our own sense of autonomy, our range of self actuation, and perhaps our own self conceived heroic efforts to be good persons in the world. It would certainly be a pertinent issue to raise in a discussion of values between the people with conservative and liberal perspectives. Especially with regards to troubling concerns about personal responsibility and the degree to which one can actually follow out and accomplish one's dreams of one's own initiative. Both general categories have values and ideals about how an individual is free to pursue their dreams. Perhaps in an exploration of institutionalized authority, an exploration of those differences will emerge as well.

Recently Philip Zimbardo, who created and conducted the 1971 experiment, published a book about it (three days ago?!) called The Lucifer Affect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Dr.Zimbardo discusses the book and what the experiment has come to mean to him over the past 36 years. During the interview, excerpts from the actual film made during the experiment are shown, and also, after the fact (several months after) interviews with those who took part in it, where the participants discussed with each other their roles and their perspectives on their experience, and of each other.

A prison is perhaps the most extreme version of institutionalization of power in our society, but with some contemplation we can find many elements of it in other systemic forms of our society. Nearly all of us undoubtedly experienced it during our primary and secondary schooling, it can be found in many private work environments, like corporations, and in the bureaucracies of government. Much of that people take for granted as the way it needs to be. Those of us who have been in the military and through boot camp, have experienced the closest form of institutionalized power that I am familiar with to a prison environment, and a prison environment was supposed to be the basis of the institutionalization acted out in that 1971 experiment. As noted, having been through the military myself, I know personally what some of the structural elements are like in such profound institutional settings, and what I had to do to personally move through all the challenges I found it presented, the roles I was expected to fill in the process, and what it was like for me, existentially, to fill those roles and at the same time manage to maintain what I considered to be values of personal integrity. Not surprisingly I discovered I was sometimes required to restrain my values under threat of what to me was coercion from a figure of authority; for others, maybe not so, because I discovered that a fair number of my fellow service members seemed to have internalized the legitimacy of the system in ways I had not. But those issues that seem to comprimise my established ethical framework, out of which I would normally have guided my behavior present the dilemmas out of which arise the kinds of perplexing questions this topic stimulates for me. These questions may also infer the philosophical debate that Jacques Ellul has raised with his concepts of integrative and sociological propaganda.

Most of us may be proud of our individuality and may believe that we are immune to the affect a systemic institutionalization of power can have on our behavior. This experiment raises questions that may challenge such beliefs about our personal freedom and dignity. The question I have asked about it, since I first heard of it years ago, is what psychological affect institutionalization of power has on each of us, subtly or overtly, since we are always engaged in various ways with these environments? And what, if anything, can we do about it? Is it possible that by knowing and understanding it better, we can in some way mitigate those affects? Or is it even possible that some people, for various reasons, would rather not?

Professor Zimbardo testified for the defense of the soldiers who were prosecuted for their role in the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib. In light of that experience, as well as his thirty six years since his experiment, he asks the question, who is really to blame? Or maybe what is really to blame for the abuses that took place? He apparently does try to offer an answer to that in the book, and he gives a brief explanation at the end of the interview.

Watch an introduction to a documentary film of the experiment Quiet Rage:

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