Truth+Consequences: The Experimenter


Image: Magnolia Pictures

Truth+Consequences is an ongoing column by Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator Executive Director Deb Johnson exploring culture’s impact on society in today’s world.

“We choose our reality when we choose another person.” Stanley Milgram, “The Experimenter”

I’ve been reflecting on the film “The Experimenter” about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who in 1961 conducted a series of radical behavior experiments at Yale University that tested the willingness of people to obey an authority figure. It was an experiment to understand the dynamics of Nazism after WWII but it brought me right here to post election 2016.

It is beyond shocking to see a person, given the role of “Teacher,” administering electrical shocks to the “Learner” seated in another room. Each time the “Learner” fails to answer a word pair correctly the “Teacher” increases the voltage. The “Learner” reacts more and more violently to the point of begging for the experiment to end. The only one who doesn’t know the shocks aren’t real is the “Teacher” who seeks desperately to be relieved of his duty and grimaces each time he pushes the button. More than half of the participants continue the experiment to the highest voltage.

So much about human behavior is revealed and disturbing and makes me worry. In particular, the notion of the “agentic state,” – a theory about how a person will disassociate themselves from their actions and enter a state of obedience. Certainly this happens every day in various degrees, we all become immune to injustices and continue on. We pass by a homeless person, drink bottled water, accept war, ignore hunger, or buy clothes without thinking about if they were made in humane conditions. The list is endless. But where does conformity shift from being benign to being malignant? Where do we draw the line?

In the past month, some of us have voted for a person who will allow us to disassociate ourselves from brutality and reject truth and goodness and some of us are asking, “How did this happen?” Will we succumb to this human nature to conform, obey and follow the leader? Will fear pave the way to accepting a culture of bullying where we are afraid to speak out for our beliefs?

“Every time a new outrage is released into the world the suspension of moral value is revisited.”

This is something Milgram says to his wife in the film and has stuck to me like gum on a shoe. We are, (half of us anyway), outraged by the election results and revisiting our moral values. Fearing the destruction of goodness. Stunned that there are so many Americans who are so distraught at the system that they chose this new president and clinging to the Americans who are distraught by this choice and pissed that so few Americans cared enough to vote.

Personally, I am (child of the 60s) now kicking myself for not taking the time to understand how many people we were leaving behind in our righteous quest for equality and justice. I will never believe that my values for humanity are wrong. But we ignored the people unwilling to come along, who wanted respect and needed to be heard and needed a place in the future that made sense to them. We weren’t compelling enough in exposing the fragility of equality, freedom of religion and women’s rights to the millennials.

I am no longer asking “How did this happen?” but, “How can you ask a person to enter into a future that they can’t see?”