I have been watching the awful news from Arizona with a mixture of sadness and anger. This obscure (until last Saturday) representative from Tucson was gunned down while meeting with constituents. This brave woman was there performing her constitutional duties despite being targeted by the extremist nuts with threatening phone calls, with suggestive cross –hairs graphics, with vandalism against her office, with explicit threats to her life. The instinctive reaction throughout the country was revulsion at the political vitriol, the coarsening of our discourse, the ready resort, both rhetorically and physically, to violence. And the punditry’s reaction? From the right wing, Rush Limbaugh saw yet another conspiracy by the Democrats to suppress free speech. From the centrist punditry, an admonition that no correlation has been shown between hate speech and physical violence. And from the medical community –a deafening silence. Presumably because there is no data to suggest that rhetoric can affect unstable minds. Or is it because we are simply cowed by the torrent of vitriolic contempt that is sure to be unleashed if we spoke up? Is there really no evidence to support the relationship between verbal and physical violence? Is there really no relationship between the delusions of what is called in the argot de jour “deranged mind” and the social environment?
Of course there is!
Biblical and medieval “visionaries” are a somewhat extreme example of the “deranged mind” of plain vanilla nut cases, but they can teach us quite a bit. Since antiquity, the content of what was called “a vision” was a product of the societal milieu. Prophet Ezekiel had the most bizarre visions of God riding a flaming chariot drawn by white horses. His visions, described in vivid detail, had an LSD quality to them. Yet, they were totally acceptable to his audience as the gospel truth. Likewise, medieval women (yes, they were mostly female) had visions of the Virgin. The most famous of them, Jeanne D’Arc, whipped the people of France into a religious frenzy by claiming divine orders to fight the invading English. The twentieth century produced different types of “visions”: radio transmitters implanted by U.S. Government agents in the brains of unsuspecting citizens in order to control their minds. More recently, black U.N. helicopters hiding in U.S. air force bases, ready to take over the country and impose a World Government. And in the last couple of decades –aliens flying saucers from outer worlds attempting to take over our civilization.
What’s common to all these, apart from being nutty? I would argue that they reflect the culture, the rhetoric, and yes – the propaganda of their respective times. In other words, the contents of these delusionary thoughts were a product of their respective environment. If one claimed nowadays that he saw God ascending to Heaven in a chariot he would be either committed to an insane asylum, or stoned to death for blasphemy against the religion. Could a French girl get her people go to war under orders from God? But stories about government agents and black helicopters gain astonishingly wide acceptance. Why? Because the cultural environment made the former ridiculous and the latter acceptable. Senator Patrick Moynihan had the same idea in mind when he explained the increasing acceptance of violence in our society as a result of “defining deviancy down”.
Does it take a “deranged mind”?
Apologists of the hate mongers (who are by and large the hate mongers themselves) claim that they should not be muzzled from exercising their right to a “vigorous debate” because of a few “deranged minds” in our society.
Wrong on both counts! Demonizing a political opponent as an America-hater, or worse, a traitor to his nation, is not a debate. On the contrary, it forecloses all rational debate; it is a condemnation, an incitement to hatred. And to assume that only “deranged minds” are susceptible to a violent environment is not borne out by the facts.
Again, examples from history abound. Suffice it to mention the Holocaust and the massacre of Rwanda. The facts are documented in painful detail: demonization of a minority, ratcheting up the decibels of the violent rhetoric, and massacre. The murderers were ordinary, law abiding citizens caught up in the centrifugal force of increasingly toxic speech. Deviancy was defined down, violence became acceptable.
Are we inherently better?
Belief in American Exeptionalism has become a litmus test for loyalty to the U.S. Yet, are we really exceptional? Are the Holocaust and the Rwanda massacres specific to “unexceptional” people? Two famous experiments soundly refute this self-congratulatory view of ourselves.
The Milgram experiment: Stanley Milgram, a professor of Psychology at Yale University, wanted to find out if a situation akin to the ready acceptance by the general German population of atrocities against the Jews could happen here. His volunteers were Yale University students. They, acting as “teachers”, were instructed to read a list of 4 words to a “learner” sitting in an adjacent room (in reality, a confederate of the experimenters). For the first wrong answer the “teacher” was to administer an electric shock, and for each additional error –additional shocks in increments of 15 volts, until they reach a maximum of 450 volts. Before conducting the experiment, Milgram polled fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors to predict the behavior of 100 hypothetical teachers. All of the poll respondents believed that only a very small fraction of teachers (the range was from zero to 3 out of 100, with an average of 1.2) would be prepared to inflict the maximum voltage. Milgram also informally polled his colleagues and found that they, too, believed very few subjects would progress beyond a very strong shock.
In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock.
The Stanford Prison Experiment: Professor Zimbardo, who had been a student in Professor Milgram class, wanted to expand on the Milgram’s experiment. The question he asked was how would the participants react when placed in a simulated prison environment. “Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?” Zimbardo explained in one interview.
The researchers set up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building, and then selected 24 undergraduate students to play the roles of both prisoners and guards.
While the Stanford Prison Experiment was originally slated to last 14 days, it had to be stopped after just six days due to what was happening to the student participants. The guards became abusive, some to extreme, and the prisoners began to show signs of extreme stress and anxiety.
The most salient conclusions from these experiments:
- Human minds, however “stable” and civilized, are susceptible to the powers of authority and to situational conformity. In other words, a hostile and violent environment makes any mind, not only the “deranged” one, susceptible to violent behavior.
- There is no moral superiority to American kids –nothing exceptional about them in this respect. Given the right environment, I suspect many would replicate what German and Rwandan kids did. So we’d better wake up to this reality and recognize that the hate in our speech and vitriol in our political discourse affects and infects many minds, deranged and as well as impressionable but otherwise completely stable minds.
It is the professional and moral obligation of the scientific and medical profession to speak up. They will be vilified by the professional hate mongers, demonized as “liberals” –yet they should speak up. It is our democracy that is at stake.