Dissonance, Part II: shocking revelations

As previously mentioned, I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s early novel, Mother Night. Protagonist Howard W. Campbell Jr. writes his memoirs for the Haifa Institute, awaiting his trial for war crimes committed while serving as an American spy, producing Nazi propaganda.

The Nazi story is an unsettling one. Howard confesses, when pressed, that if Germany had won the war, he would likely have gone along with it, American spy or no, and this is an unfortunate truth many of us would rather not face. We like to think we are secure in our values and moralities, that we are unaffected by situational factors.

A defense used over and over again was this: “I was just following orders.” How could so many people “just follow orders” to commit such atrocities? One theory, particularly popular with Americans, was the Culture and Personality Theory: essentially, traits inherent to the German culture fostered in the German people an “authoritarian personality,” meaning they were naturally predisposed to “just follow orders.” The appeal of this explanation is, of course, that Americans would never do that, because our culture fosters independence and free thought. A competing theory, Situational Theory, posited that situational factors (e.g., Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the ensuing depression combined with Hitler’s charisma, nationalism, and success) positioned people for that sort of obedience. The implications of this are much less comforting: what happened in Germany could happen anywhere, to anyone, given the right conditions.

In 1961, when the trials of Nazi war criminals were just beginning, Stanley Milgram devised a now-infamous experiment. He recruited subjects for what he called a study on learning. Subjects were taken into a room and told that they were to be the “teacher,” and on the other side of the wall was another subject, the “student”; the teacher would ask the student a question, and when the student answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to deliver a shock of increasing severity.

The settings on the device used for shocks were marked, ranging from mild to extremely dangerous, 450V. Inevitably, the students got questions wrong, and the teachers delivered the prescribed shocks. As the voltage got higher, though, students became distraught, eventually begging the teachers to stop, crying, and finally going silent. Whenever the teachers showed signs of hesitation, though, the researcher instructed them to continue. Sixty-five percent of participants administered the maximum shock.

The students were actually actors, and no real shocks were given. Milgram’s results, though, support the Situational Theory over the Culture and Personality Theory. His subjects were normal members of American society, but they “just followed orders” and did things most of us would consider unacceptable.

(There are many criticisms of Milgram’s study, and he is largely responsible for the heightened standards of the Human Subjects Review Committee for ethics, including the addition of an informed consent making subjects explicitly aware that they can stop participating at any time. The results may be imperfect, but they are still troubling.)

So what does this mean for Howard W. Campbell Jr., Nazi propagandist and American agent, known for fraternizing with Eichmann and openly condemning the United States and its Jewish overlords? What does it mean for the other war criminals awaiting trial? What does it mean for me, as a reader, on the opposite side of those pages?

We are not so different as we would like to think.

[to be continued]

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