Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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In the mid-1970’s, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment now remembered as “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” He created a mock prison unit in the basement of the psychology building, where he then placed the young college-age men he had recruited and vetted for his experiment. Some became prison guards, others became prisoners. On the day the experiment began, the prisoners were taken in handcuffs from their middle-class homes in nice, middle-class neighborhoods, placed in real police cars by real policemen, and taken to the site of the mock prison. There, they were treated like inmates in real prisons. The experiment, intended to go on for much longer, was stopped within a week. The entire experiment was filmed, and you can watch—hour by hour, day by day—as experimental prison guards became ever more aggressive, punitive, and angry reactionaries to any signs of rebellion by the “prisoners.” The prisoners, on the other hand, also very quickly lost their self-esteem along with any sense of merely being part of an experiment. Their sullen responses, their fear of the guards, their futile efforts to bring about any recognition of their humanity soon resulted in severe mental trauma for some of the men, at least one of whom had to be released after a short period in prison because of his deteriorating mental status.
Some critics of the experiment called it a failed experiment, partly because Zimbardo’s own ongoing participation in the experiment affected some of the outcomes. It was a period in academic history during which we saw several such experiments, including Stanley Milgram’s famous work showing how human beings can be made to repeatedly perpetrate atrocities on their fellow humans, simply because an authority figure told them to do so. One good outcome after these experiments became public was the creation or strengthening of Institutional Review Boards that would determine whether human research posed any threat to the lives of those being studied. Zimbardo and Milgram each proved something through their research, however, that we should have learned from World War II and Adolf Hitler.
For me, and for many others that I have had the privilege of knowing, the lesson was this: When we lack, or ignore, our own internal authority to do right, or to survive (i.e. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning) when under oppression, our humanity deteriorates. Or, as I had often said in South Africa before freedom, “when we dehumanize another human being, we dehumanize ourselves even more.” I watched it happen.
I also watched people like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela listen to their internal authority, and remain men of great integrity and power. It was not only the famous who were able to do this, either. I knew many, many people who survived apartheid South Africa with integrity, as well as others who died because of it and whose names may never be known to us. The point I am trying to make is that we are never helpless to maintain our essential wholeness and dignity so long as we have developed it in the first place, and so long as we recognize and dignify the humanity in others–Regardless of who they are, and of where you meet them.
The Zulu people of South Africa greet one another by saying Sawubona, which is literally translated “I see you.” The full meaning of that phrase is to say “I see you, and I recognize that you are another human being, just as I am.”
I think back to a time when I was the nurse in the county jail in a city in South Carolina. It was a difficult period in my life when I had turned my back on the church (after it had turned its back on me, by the way) and was simply trying to live by my own standards and ethics. I was in the nurse’s office when several trustys came in, laughing about a preacher who had just spent some time presenting a sermon to the prisoners. As I recall, their source of amusement was his inability to recognize that he had no idea of the lives of the people he was trying to reach. One of the men turned to me and said “We know that you are a true Christian, though, don’t worry.” My immediate thought was “then you know more than I do,” but I merely stuttered “W-why?” “Because,” another replied, “you always treat us like human beings.”
Now let’s return to the Prison Experiment and the reason I am writing all of this. I am compelled to wonder why (just as I wondered when I worked in the prison) we cut funds for education, and build more prisons. The sociologist Emile Durheim supplies the answer to that question: Everything in a society has a purpose, he says, “even criminals.” That purpose? To supply jobs for law enforcement authority, guards, cops, and especially for lawyers. And incidentally, to provide us with a bad example to use to teach our kids the right thing to do.
With all due respect to Professor Durkheim, I believe that spending money on education has a far greater potential for improving our society than does putting thousands of people and billions of taxpayer dollars into what we already know is a “failed experiment.” Prisons make better criminals, not better citizens. And as we saw in the experiment, keeping in mind that these young men started out as normal, middle class people in good families, even being a prison guard diminishes the humanity of the guard.
We are the only advanced country in the world to rely on a prison term as a deterrent to nonviolent crime, to the extent that we do rely on it. And we continue to rely on it, despite all the evidence that it does not work. And still, we continue to cut education budgets, close schools, and force good educators to resort to rote learning tactics in order to keep their schools open and their paychecks coming.

“Those who can only memorize the world as it is, are incapable of changing it.”

This is also part of the problem. If people are to develop and grow their internal authority and make the world safer and a more pleasant place to live, they first need to be taught. And when they do stray from what is right, they could be placed in recovery programs, similar to the more successful addiction recovery programs. There they could be retrained, if necessary. They would make amends and restore or repair their wrongdoing as much as possible. If treated as human beings, they could learn to help their communities by serving others who are in need, and to rejoin the world as better human beings, not better criminals. This would be a much more sustainable use of tax money, as well as the time spent by those who ran the programs. I believe – no, I KNOW – that this would make us a better community, and eventually a better nation.


Author: profemjay

I am a retired Professor of Sociology with interests in the Sociology of Medicine, Political Sociology, the Sociology of Development, Social Action and the Sociology of Religion.

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