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Commentary: Zimbardo: Wait, wait, don't tell me

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A bucket list? Nope. Instead, I have an “invite them to lunch” shortlist that includes columnist Susan Estrich, for her openness in speaking out against rape; columnist Gene Weingarten for his contagiously funny look at serious subjects; psychologist Phil Zimbardo, who managed a turnaround of psychological perspectives on a serious issue; and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has taken on the task of persuading Congress to a collective point of view they may in fact already individually espouse. They should call me. The Buffalo/Niagara/Lake Erie area has some excellent restaurants.

And it’s not just that I nod my head a lot when reading these particular people. It’s also that they have moxie.

Phil Zimbardo is the Stanford psychologist whose “ let’s-pretend-prison” had to be closed down in less than a week. But he wasn’t on my let’s-have-lunch-list until his new book was published decades later: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The website for his new perspective has menu options that describe terms ranging from “dehumanization” to “celebrating heroism,” and an outline of the book, all of which help define recovery from his original experiment.

Recognizing that even what are known to be only experiments but that are cruel should be stopped, Zimbardo establishes a premise for self-examination in instances that duplicate what is already known.

But whether participants lack that kind of self-awareness or have it, what happens, Zimbardo implies, when it takes place in the real world? Means do not justify ends. Instead, ends are tainted by means. Even demeaning via language is a slippery slope to demeaning via action, and they are psychologically and neurologically connected.

Dehumanizing the “other” is one way that factions of populations are encouraged to mistreat other factions of population. Women and minority groups of every kind are vulnerable precisely because they are vulnerable. The thing is, degrading nicknames and labeling in this regard are not new. The Vietnam War, for instance, provided vivid examples of these accessible to anyone with a computer or a history book. Yet, it continues, even though each generation denounces it for the record.

Instead of finding for what he calls the dispositional—an individualistic or even genetic model—in his new book, Zimbardo finds for a situational model. Situations that people find themselves in—even are recruited or forced into—can actually create what supposedly then needs solving. To attribute characteristics to an individualistic explanation, he says, is seriously flawed, and may even be culturally based and biased.

Creating a concocted version of even a slice of real life is reckless and damaging in itself even when it is not purposeful. The Stanford students in Zimbardo’s original experiment became depressed, rebellious, hysterical, and in need of immediate release even though they had volunteered for the experiment--and this even though the roles of guard and prisoner were randomly assigned and the volunteers were pre-screened for medical issues.

Eyal Press, the author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, is a recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, a 2011 Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and widely published. He notes that when there isn’t actual contact, those who inflict harm have an easier time doing so than when they are face to face. That’s one reason why “I was just following orders” has become such a chilling phrase, demonstrated in an experiment by, eerily enough, Zimbardo’s former schoolmate, Stanley Milgram.

That’s one reason that an article by Timothy M. Phelps that appeared in The Buffalo News on April 16 is of interest. It reports that the military justice system is going to be reviewed over the next year and a half. The article notes that the Defense Department has said this is a comprehensive review of the entire military justice system, not just another look at sexual assault cases. Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale University, also commented in the article that the review would no doubt be about more than sexual assault, as did Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale.

“It’s simply time,” Breasseale was quoted as saying.

And it is. But wait, wait, don’t tell me: An institution cannot successfully investigate itself only by itself. Although civilians like Judith Miller, former Defense Department general counsel under President Clinton and Judge David Sentelle, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. circuit, are advisors to the project, real people who have been affected by these issues should be included in real-time discussions with military decision-makers—not as statistics and not just a summary of their views-- but as peers, in the same room, up close and personal.

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She is the publisher and editor of the literary journal Person, Place, Thing. Her books include COUSINS: A picture book for kids from 3-8, and WITCH HUNT, a novel. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column.

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