To err is human, to doubt is divine.
Of course, in reality, no humans were being harmed by the shocks, but the subjects believed that there were. As a consequence many of them displayed the sort of mental anguish that you might expect from someone who is being compelled to harm an innocent. Of course, by "compelled" in this case I mean "Told to continue in rather antiseptic terms without the threat of force," but, hey, compelled is a pretty broad term, right? Regardless, before the experiment a panel of psychologists predicted that fewer than one person in a hundred would go all the way with the experiment. In fact, sixty-five percent of the subjects continued administering increasingly severe shocks, despite protests from the recipient, through to the maximum shock included in the experiment. This experiment, initiated as part of an attempt to explain the the Holocaust, had succeeded only too well.
I've often used the documentary film Milgram made about this study in my sociology classes and often witness the surprise and horror of my students. They almost always seem shocked that regular people would do such things while subjected to so minimal a level of coercion. Indeed, when watching the film it is easy to tell yourself that you would have behaved differently. Unfortunately, while this may give you a warm and secure feeling inside, it is almost certainly wrong. Most people are taught from a very early age to respect and obey authorities and, as such, have a difficult time disobeying even when they know they should. Sadly, we don't need to look very far to find confirmatory evidence that this is the case.
A recent report on ABC News sadly, and dramatically, reconfirms that Americans are just as obedient today as they were when Milgram conducted his experiments. Specifically, a McDonald's manager named Donna Summers received a telephone call from a man claiming to be a police officer, who then described a person who supposedly had stolen a purse while wearing a McDonald's uniform. The description apparently matched one of Summers' employees, Louise Ogborn (18). On learning this, the voice began to give instructions:
Ogborn was called into assistant manager Donna Summers' cramped office and told that Summers was on the telephone with a police officer.
"She said, 'Here she is. This is the girl you described,'" said Ogborn. "She told me to shut the door."
Summers told Ogborn that the officer on the phone had their store manager on the other line and that he had described her and accused her of stealing a purse from a customer.
"I was like, 'Donna, I've never done anything wrong,'" Ogborn said. "I could never steal — I could never do anything like that. I don't have it in me."
But inside the back office, which had now become an "interrogation room," Ogborn's protests fell on deaf ears.
"She said, 'Well, they said it was a little girl that looked like you in a McDonald's uniform, so it had to be you.'"
It was Ogborn's word against the accusation of a man claiming to be a cop, and she was given a choice: submit to a search or be escorted to the police station.
Listening to 'the Voice'
Ogborn was told to empty her pockets and surrender her car keys and cell phone, which she did. Then the caller demanded that Summers have Ogborn remove her clothes — even her underwear — leaving her with just a small, dirty apron to cover her naked body.
Summers says she never second-guessed what she was being asked to do, as she firmly believed the person she was talking to was a police officer. Ogborn says she trusted her manager to do what was right.
The article, of course, goes on and reaches a level that I suspect many of us would not have believed:
Within fifteen minutes, Summers' fiancé, Walter Nix, entered the office [Summers was instructed to call him by the voice on the phone] where Ogborn tugged at the small apron that barely covered her top and exposed her legs up to her buttocks.
Again, Summers says she didn't question the caller and completely trusted her fiancé to be left alone with the girl.
Ogborn says she wanted to run, but that it would have been too humiliating to run through the restaurant naked.
Nix, a 43-year-old exterminator, began following the caller's commands, ordering Ogborn to drop her apron, bend over and stand on a chair.
Then — as ridiculous as it sounds — he told her to do jumping jacks to shake loose anything she might be hiding. Ogborn says that was just the beginning of two more hours of torment.
The demands became more and more bizarre. When Ogborn says that when she failed to address Nix as "sir," the caller tells him to hit her violently on the buttocks over and over. At one point on the video, Ogborn was "spanked" for almost 10 full minutes.
Ogborn says that after more than three hours of dehumanizing treatment, Nix — again on the instructions of the caller — forced Ogborn to perform a sexual act.
Of course, not everyone involved in this event was equally susceptible to the demands of an unknown caller:
This time, she had Thomas Simms, a 58-year-old maintenance man who worked at the restaurant, get on the phone with the caller, but Simms refused to comply with the caller's strange demands.
Yet, despite the refusal of Thomas Simms as well as 27 year-old Jason Bradley to take part, the humiliation of Louise Ogborn continued until Summers called her own manager. In total, this incident lasted more than three hours and was sparked by nothing more than an individual on the phone claiming to be a police officer. Given the staggering behavior of Summers, Nix, and others, we can only conclude that, contrary to their own self-image, Americans remain as vulnerable to authority figures as ever. Given this, how can we look at recent actions by the U.S. government and blame them on a few "bad apples?" Moreover, how can we continue to weaken our constitutional protections when we are so obviously incapable of defending them without institutional support?
In truth, I do not know what to do about this situation. On one level, I doubt that this weakness in human beings can ever be fully remedied. We are, like all other species, a product of our evolutionary history, and that history includes a certain reverence for hierarchy. Yet, knowing that, I think there is at least one thing we can do: teach our citizens to respect authority a little less. Those who know me, or who read this blog, know that I can quite safely be labeled a skeptic. As such I can assure you that skepticism entails a certain lack of respect for authority as authority. This does not mean that skeptics are unwilling to accept what people say, but rather only that we tend to demand proof or logical argumentation to back it up. As an instructor, I try to cultivate skepticism in my students, both by teaching them to question what they read, and to question me. If I am, indeed, qualified to impart wisdom to my students, then I should have nothing to fear from their questions.
Am I saying that inculcating skepticism will solve this problem? Will it prevent the Louise Ogborns of the future from cowering naked in offices at the whim of faceless strangers? Probably not. On the other hand, I think it can't possibly hurt and is probably worth a try. Skepticism isn't a panacea, but it is a good way to get people to question authority before the mitts come off, and before they find themselves deprived of essential freedoms. This makes skepticism a valuable tool in any democratic society.
But don't take my word for it. Decide for yourself.
Special thanks to Jesus' General for originally bringing this story to my attention.