In 1971 an experiment was conducted to study how power changes a human. The now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, subject of a recent Hollywood movie The Experiment 40 years later has rekindled interest in a much debated topic.
The Quran tells us in Surah Bakarah:190 not to start aggression but to defend ourselves if we are victimized or attacked. The bottom line being that we should not take our treatment if we feel it is unfair quietly without any form of protest. In the 1971 experiment:
Twenty-four male students out of 75 were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners quit the experiment early and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days.
What does that say about us as civilized human beings, evolved beyond our basic instincts that require us to fight for food, shelter and safety, no matter what. The world is aware of human rights violations in numerous situations, in Syria, Egypt, Bosnia, Palestine and other civil war/sectarianism situations. Yet, we are not shocked by the behavior, in fact we do nothing to stop it, why?
Marina Abramović is best known for her performance pieces, in which she tries to explore what is possible for an artist to do in the name of art. Her most recent piece was primarily a trust exercise, in which she told viewers she would not move for six hours no matter what they did to her. She placed 72 objects one could use in pleasing or destructive ways, ranging from flowers and a feather boa to a knife and a loaded pistol, on a table near her and invited the viewers to use them on her however they wanted. Initially, Abramović said, viewers were peaceful and timid, but it escalated to violence quickly. “The experience I learned was that … if you leave decision to the public, you can be killed… I felt really violated: they cut my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the public. Everyone ran away, escaping an actual confrontation.”
This recent art piece and the Stanford experiment both prove that no matter how civilized and educated we are, people will harm each other when they fear no retribution. It is easy to abuse and dehumanize a person who will not fight back due to whatever reason – be it mental, physical or both. I for one am sure I could never do anything of this sort, but the experiments proved otherwise as they were conducted using ordinary people from all backgrounds. People like you and I.
God in His wisdom, has advised us explicitly not to take abuse without a protest or fight, so why is it that people who outnumber their oppressors do not fight back? Or people who are more advanced – mentally, physically or technologically abuse the very people they should protect by virtue of humanity and moral code of conduct? Where do you stand?
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse. Festinger subsequently (1957) published a book called A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in which he outlines the theory. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. (Wikipedia)
The theory of cognitive dissonance states that people motivated to reduce existing perceptions and adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, they can also do this by adding or removing from their conscience conflicting beliefs. It is this mental state that people feel when they “find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.” Alternatively, a person will avoid a situation that will lead him to be in this mental state. For example, the guards at Bagram in Afghanistan were in this state, they held a strong belief that torture was not permissible. They then got an unspoken “OK” that they could use torture on the prisoners, when in this state of conflict, they decided to put one of the conflicting pieces of information on the back burner and acted accordingly. Some guards however had deeply rooted values, maybe religion and could not resolve the conflict the same way.
Thus the logical conclusion is that belief in a higher power, keeps us human?