The reluctance of people to stand up against things which they know to be wrong is fascinating and horrible. It has freaked me out ever since I read about the Milgram experiment as a teenager. This is the experiment where they persuaded 66% of participants in the experiment to administer near-fatal electric shocks to a person who was supposedly behind a screen and answering questions. I really hope that I would be one of the ones who refused.
Tigtog at LP has written a post about the Mai Lai massacre, in which some American soldiers bore arms against their own colleagues, and refused to participate in the killing of villagers. She then goes on to say:
Now, bear with me while I wrench away from blood and death to everyday blokes and “banter”, but what justifies the common voluntary male subjection to the homosocial phenomenon whereby men who don’t “go along” with “the blokes” are ostracised? Why is that ostracism such a strong tool in so many male relationships, especially amongst groups of men who are not close friends, or who may not even know each others’ names?
Tigtog seems to be saying that this is a peculiarly male phenomenon. I would have to disagree strongly. I think it is a phenomenon that applies to all genders.
As I have said in a previous post on another topic, I agree that where societal coercion is concerned, men tend to be more physical and women tend to be more psychological. In the school yard, boys would beat each other up, whereas girls would be much more likely to do the psychological “freeze” out and whisper nasty things about one another. Of course, this is a generalisation: there were cases where girls had violent physical fights (I recall one where two girls pulled clumps of hair from each other) and cases where boys “ganged up” on other boys. But it was rarer that way around.
However, the ultimate effect of such coercion is the same, which is to minimise dissent. Therefore, I do not think there is a difference between men and women in this regard. Each are equally likely to refuse to tolerate dissent in certain circumstances. In fact, I think fear of social ostracism is just as strong as threats of physical violence, if not stronger in some circumstances. There is a reason why, in ancient communities, wrongdoers would be “exiled”, and why we gaol people today – to be cut off from one’s community is a terrible punishment, because human beings are essentially social.
I think humans have a basic need to comply with authority. It must have some biological basis (a predisposed tendency to obey the silverback in the gorilla troop?) Why is this? Well, we learn from a very young age that obedience can be a good and necessary thing. I found this out when I was four years old and went against my grandpa’s instructions not to touch his razor. Obedience can save us from harm.
Further, it has to be said that sometimes the fear of social ostracism can have a positive effect – for example, in today’s world, if someone says a sexist or racist joke at a social gathering, they are likely to be regarded with distaste by most present, so are less likely to say a joke like that. In fact, the criminal law works partially by deterring people from acting illegally on the basis that to do certain things will result in social ostracism and removal from mainstream society.
However, in certain circumstances, obedience can produce horrific results. Skepticlawyer wrote an interesting post a while back on genocidaires in which this very phenomenon was discussed. She said genocidaires were typically individuals with high IQ and very low empathy, as well as posessing an ability to convince other less intelligent individuals to follow their command. (Please keep writing some posts if you have time, skepticlawyer! I did enjoy them.)
Why is it that people follow commands which they know are wrong, and don’t stand up for what is right? People don’t want to end up on the bottom of the heap with the despised minority. Better to be on the side of the bully than to be on the receiving end. I think, as described above, there might also be a basic biological urge to follow authority because this may be a positive in some circumstances. Think about all the emphasis in job interviews on the ability to “work in a team” and toe the line!
It is also really important to have individuals who will stand up against the status quo and question what is right. This is partially why I don’t follow a particular political “doctrine” – I like to look at each issue and carefully consider what is right according to my own beliefs. It is essential to encourage debate and to listen to other points of view. And to allow iconoclasts and dissenters, even if we do not agree with what they say.
I’m going to finish off with another quote from Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, in which the demon Crowley considers humanity:
…[H]e rather liked people. It was a major failing in a demon.
Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow. They were born into a world that was against them in a thousand little ways, and they devoted most of their energies to making it worse. …
And just when you’d think they were more malignant than ever Hell could be, they could occasionally show more grace than Heaven ever dreamed of…
Here’s to those human beings who show more grace than Heaven could dream of.