March 21, 2010


Would you torture this man?: A spoof game show on French television has shown that the majority of us are capable of unthinkable cruelty once the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred (Michael Portillo, 20 Mar 2010, Daily Telegraph)

The documentary-makers who rigged up the game show took inspiration from the experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the early Sixties – as did I when I recreated them for my own documentary on anger last year. After Adolf Eichmann, one of the masterminds of the Nazi holocaust, stood trial in Israel in 1961, it reignited public debate about whether the German people were unusual in their willingness to renounce personal responsibility and participate in mass murder. Could it be that Eichmann and his millions of accomplices were just following orders?

Milgram doubted that the Germans were any different from the rest of humanity. To test this theory, he invited members of the American public into his university to help, as they thought, with an experiment on learning. In the interests of scientific research, they were asked to deliver escalating voltages of electric shock to another human being when he gave the wrong answers in a memory test. Despite the fact that they could hear him screaming with pain, the majority moved on progressively to send 450 volts through his body, a dose that could certainly be lethal.

Following this experiment, it was hard to argue that Nazism was made possible because of some unique evil or deference to authority present in the German psyche. The conclusion, that it doesn’t take much to coax good-hearted people anywhere into monstrous acts of violence, shattered complacency inside the world’s democracies.

In the Milgram test, the authority figure was not a uniformed dictator but a white-coated professor. The ideology was not a political creed but science, with all its associations of progress and betterment. Milgram perceived that we are easily persuaded to set aside moral judgments if we are convinced that we are improving human understanding.

In last week’s French spoof, the victim was also an actor. Unlike Milgram’s set-up, in which the victim was seated in another room, the “suffering” could be seen as well as heard, with the actor pretending to writhe in pain in front of a studio audience. Also, there was no scientist to persuade the “torturers” that by inflicting pain they were helping humanity: the participants were under no illusion that they were doing anything other than enjoying 15 minutes of television fame. Perhaps they reasoned that electrocuting contestants was a logical progression from incarcerating oddball characters inside the Big Brother house.

...under which it is wrong to torture not just a Frenchman but a reality show contestant to boot?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2010 7:02 AM
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