[War] is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers…but we’re not going to kill…today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill…today!
— Kirk in ‘A Taste Of Armageddon‘ (at 6:15 minutes in)
Over our lives, there will be occasions where we will be a victim, we will victimize someone, we will watch a person be victimized and on rare occasions, under the right conditions, we may stop that victimization of another person or refuse to be victimized.
You are probably protesting that you’d ever be one or allow someone to be or make someone into one. Consider these three events and then consider how much they contribute to any historical or current event – global or even personal.
In the early 1960’s, a Yale University professor, Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test obedience:
He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered with 38 known witnesses. She was attacked twice by the same assailant, her cries for help ignored. No one phoned the police and she bled to death. Or so the story went.
In 1971, the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment took place. A planned 2 week experiment in which half of the participants were prisoners and the other half guards. In four days, the guards went from verbal abuse and humiliation to an escalation of sexual humiliation. The experiment had to be canceled after 6 days. The images from this event are parallel to the images and stories from Abu Ghraib.
What these two experiments and the witness response to the murder reveal is that there is no such thing as absolute morals, and by extension, inherent human rights.
Or perhaps at least that who we consider human and worthy of rights is often flexible.
The sum of these three are that ordinary people will absolve themselves of any:
- moral responsibility if that responsibility can be shifted to an authority figure.
- direct responsibility to take action if there are other people around so that responsibility is dissipated through the group. Unless, like in the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, the people involved had a clear understanding of their social role.
- accountability if the “authority” encourages abuse or fails to prevent escalating abuse of a group of people with less power and are not deemed to be equal or even human.
These behavioral factors combined with the right conditions, are what allow everything from genocide to bullying in the schoolyard or workplace to occur in plain view. Evil is banal, not exceptional.
It is the belief that another person or group is not an equal to ourselves combined with the condition of having some power over them, that results in actual abuse or allowing abuse to occur.
Adding government sanction, or worse, a divine authority’s sanction into the mix, is incendiary.
If we all actually believed that we were all equally valuable and entitled to fair treatment and rights, could the following events of the last say 150 or so years have taken place or be allowed to continue to occur? (this isn’t a comprehensive or in any hierarchical order)
- Reservations for Aboriginal people
- Holocaust of the Jews and other social undesirables in WWII
- South African Apartheid/Jim Crow Laws
- Vatican cover up of pedophile priests
- Military abuse of civilians and prisoners in all wars and conflicts
- 9/11 and the resulting war on terrorism
These behaviors and conditions are also applied in medium size (comparatively) contexts:
- Systemic discrimination towards any marginalized group
- The fact of there being marginalized groups
- Religious campaigns against other religions
- Religious campaigns against civil rights advancements, first for women, then ethnic minorities and currently, against gays and lesbians.
- Homeless and working poor
Right down to the personal arena of people who participate in abuse, fail to report abuse or not taking a stand against it.
- Mobs or gangs out to murder or assault random individuals from their targeted group – generally other ethnicity, gays/lesbians/trans, other religious groups
- Harassment and abuse in the workplace
- Bullying in the schoolyard – the ‘Thou Shall Not Fink” school yard code is an excellent example of witnesses being what amounts to complicit in the abuse.
We have to do more than chose not to kill…today, if we are going to reduce, minimize or end these social horrors large and small.
We need to see how these horrors large and personal are related consequences of these social behaviors.
We have to make a concerted effort to see each other as equal humans and not allow systemic discrimination or groups of people to be demonized and dehumanized.
We need a concerted effort to override the religious and social beliefs that allow us to measure others and find them lacking, less than, unworthy of consideration.
Each of us is really only as good a person as we treat and regard others. It gets back to that Think and Care idea.
We have a legal obligation to obey the law, but a moral responsibility to question it.