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Sweet Cucumbers in Barrels
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Here's an interesting essay by Philip Zimbardo, the researcher who carried out the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, and who is now a witness for one of the defendants in the Abu Ghraib trials.

Zimbardo basically thinks it's the place that makes people bad, not individual decisions or personal responsbility:

In this experiment we selected normal, healthy, good kids that we found through ads in the paper. They were not Stanford students, but kids from all over the country who were in the Bay Area finishing summer school. A hundred kids applied, we interviewed them, and gave them personality tests. We picked the two dozen who were the most normal, most healthy kids. This was 1971, so these were peaceniks, civil rights activists, and anti-war activists. They were hippy kids with long hair. And within a few days, if they were assigned to the guard role, they became abusive, red-necked prison guards.

Every day the level of hostility, abuse, and degradation of the prisoners became worse and worse and worse. Within 36 hours the first prisoner had an emotional breakdown, crying, screaming, and thinking irrationally. We had to release him, and each day after that we had to release another prisoner because of extreme stress reactions. The study was supposed to run for two weeks, but I ended it after six days because it was literally out of control. Kids we chose because they were normal and healthy were breaking down. Kids who were pacifists were acting sadistically, taking pleasure in inflicting cruel, evil punishment on prisoners.

That study has legs even today, especially because of the recent exposé of abuses in the Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib. But the study was popular even before then because in a way it's a forerunner of reality TV. You take a bunch of boys, put them in a situation, and videotape them hour after hour. We have visual records of the dramatic transformation of these ordinary kids into brutal, sadistic monsters or pathological zombies ­ in a DVD format entitled "Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment." The prisoners who remained and did not break down just let the guards do whatever they wanted to them. It's really like a Greek drama more than an experiment, because it's what happens when you put good people in an evil place. Does the place win, or do the people? Answer: Place one, People zero.

I've read a little bit about this experiment and others like it, and I balk at the broad generalizations he makes in this passage and throughout the piece. I know enough about people to know that they react differently in similar situations.

But here is his wisdom distilled into analogy:

Coming from New York, I know that if you go by a delicatessen, and you put a sweet cucumber in the vinegar barrel, the cucumber might say, "No, I want to retain my sweetness." But it's hopeless. The barrel will turn the sweet cucumber into a pickle. You can't be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel. My sense is that we have the evil barrel of war, into which we've put this evil barrel of this prison—it turns out actually all of the military prisons have had similar kinds of abuses—and what you get is the corruption of otherwise good people.

So there you have it. People aren't thinking individuals with different value sets who may react differently to the environments they are put in. They're cucumbers. Apparently interchangable. Apparently all the same.

This guy is a scientist?

So nobody in his experiments balked at the abuse? They all happily took part?

But if we're explaining Abu Ghraib in such terms, what about Specialist Matthew Wisdom? According to Seymour Hersh's article in the New Yorker, upon witnessing the abuse, Wisdom responded this way:

Wisdom testified that he told his superiors what had happened, and assumed that "the issue was taken care of." He said, "I just didn’t want to be part of anything that looked criminal."

So why didn't Wisdom join in on the fun, kicking and spitting on prisoners?

And what about Master-at-Arms William J. Kimbro?

In his devastating report on conditions at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq, Major General Antonio M. Taguba singled out only three military men for praise. One of them, Master-at-Arms William J. Kimbro, a Navy dog handler, should be commended, Taguba wrote, because he "knew his duties and refused to participate in improper interrogations despite significant pressure from the MI"—military intelligence—"personnel at Abu Ghraib." Elsewhere in the report it became clear what Kimbro would not do: American soldiers, Taguba said, used "military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee."

So if these two guys are cucumbers, why the hell didn't they turn into pickles?

Hmmm, gosh, I don't know...could it be that they're adult human beings, not fucking robots who react the same in every situation, and that they're actually responsible for their actions? Gosh, could that be it?

Of course the environment affects people's behavior. Of course it's a contributing factor. But it's not the sole factor, nor am I convinced that it is the primary factor. Certainly Zimbardo's sweeping generalizations don't convince me of that.

There's certainly a danger in this kind of thinking, that someone's behavior is entirely a function of the environment they're in. It mitigates their personal responsibility, and undermines a central tenet of human behavior, that it is the character of the person that defines how they will react in a given environment. Hence, there are people who do shitty things even when they are in a loving and nuturing environment, and there are those that will do noble and heroic things in the worst of environments.

To deny this is to reduce people, vegetables.

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