Friday, June 26, 2015

Del Mastro and the Milgram Experiment. . .

Former Liberal MP Glen Pearson had an article on the Huffington Post yesterday entitled "Del Mastro isn't the Problem, Politics Is," in which he argues that Del Mastro is essentially a good man who has been led astray by a toxic political system. Pearson doesn't actually know Mr. Del Masto and his only real evidence for his contention is that the now disgraced politician is really a nice, compassionate guy is that Del Mastro once 'teared up' when he heard that Pearson's adoption of Sudanese orphans had just been completed. How could a guy who was 'fighting back tears' in such a 'touchingly human' way be a shrill, nasty, partisan hack? The answer for Pearson is that those good parts of Del Mastro's spirit were "transcended by an overriding desire to serve the Prime Minster and his Party."

I call this the "Milgram Experiement" approach to politics. The Milgram Experiment was undertaken at Yale University as a reaction to the Eichmann Trial. Psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand how apparently normal people cold be compelled to do bad things and he later expanded the results of his experiment into the book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In the experiment people were instructed to give a series of increasingly painful electric shocks to another subject (who was shielded from view) for giving incorrect answers to essentially impossible problems. A shocking (no pun intended) number of people were willing to give what they thought were dangerously painful shocks to someone simply because they were instructed (and if reluctant, prodded) to do so. The prevailing assumption of those that buy into the Milgram experiment is that most people, regardless of their ethical foundation, can be easily compelled to do bad things by a figure of authority.

Over the years many people have raised serious objections to Milgram's methodology and results. Obviously I can't go here into these clinical debates, but let me suffice to say that I don't really buy the prevailing wisdom of the Milgram experiment. For one thing, the reason the experiment worked was because it was done in an educational context. The situation of school or university is, arguably, the most compelling context of obedience that our society has outside of raw physical force. This basic issue irretrievably skews the experiment. The importance of this problem was highlighted by recreations of the experiment that were performed in less binding contexts. But my most important objection to the Milgram Experiment is that is utilizes people who are a priori likely to tend toward obedience. My instinct about the Milgram Experiment was confirmed for me when a more recent version, the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality suggested that the more left-wing someone is, the less likely they are to be obedient in the context of the experiment. And the group least likely to be willing to inflict harm were "women who had previously participated in rebellious political activity such as strikes or occupying a factory." I didn't really need an experiment to know this would be true because, and I will just say this straight up, leftwing ideology is, at heart, about compassion, while rightwing ideology is about fear, obedience, and greed. There is increasing clinical evidence that rightwing people don't process fear adequately (they have a heightened sense of fear and distrust of others). Couple this with an inordinate number of people who are self-serving, greedy, a-type personalities and you get some pretty dangerous political ideology.

However, I am digressing. The problem with assigning any sort of Milgram assumptions to a guy like Del Mastro should be obvious. For one thing, he is not some lowly undergraduate student engaged in an experiment conducted by his primary authority figures - he is a sovereign adult being paid a very large salary who was himself in a position of authority. I have no doubt that Harper can be Nazi-like in his threatening drive for obedience, and the weak-willed will be more likely to follow his dictates than others. I also have no doubt that the party political system recreates some problematic structures of power. However, that doesn't in anyway suggest to me that any truly good person would willingly do the bidding of a power-crazed, anti-democratic, monster like Harper. These MPs are not disadvantaged, uneducated, vulnerable folks whose difficult lives makes them prone to poor ethical choices. Harper's minions have, for the most part, been prosperous, white, (mostly male), individuals with all the advantages our society has to offer. If they are propping up an evil oligarch who is hell bent on victimizing everyone he can get his hands on and destroying our democracy while he's at it, let's not feel bad for them.

There is no doubt that spin-offs of the Milgram Experiment will continue to be conducted and, hopefully, offer more subtle and compelling results. There is also little doubt in my mind that the evidence will continue to grow that rightwing people are driven by an inordinate degree of distrust and fear. And I am all for giving the people the benefit of the doubt concerning their poor ethical choices when they are made in a context of genuine disadvantage or when they are vulnerable and at the whim of genuinely threatening power. In other words, I am not going to blame and condemn every line soldier for "obeying orders." But int the same context I am not going to be so willing to overlook or forgive the educated, officers who were part of the very hierarchy that was giving those orders.


doconnor said...

I debated with Glen Pearson on the blogs when he was an MP.

Despite being a lifelong advocate for the poor both domestically and internationally and being an all-around prosperous person, he tried to defend his votes to unconditionally support the Conservative government.

The pressure to conform to the party for an MP is high. If they don't they can be expelled from the caucus and lose influence on the party, committee seats, a voice in the media and will almost certainly lose in the next election.

Kirby Evans said...

Pearson is just another well-off white man who has few, if any, principles in my mind doconnor. Indeed there is pressure to conform, I don't deny such pressures exist, they exist everywhere. However, my point is that these are educated, relatively well-off people with very real options. Their excuses for acting immorally is, therefore, minimal and my sympathy small.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

This is a great post Kirby. It is also a subject that interests me very much. Why do people obey, particularly in a free society? Why would any man/woman bow to Harpers authority? Considering that it is the government of the day, their obedience has serious consequences to Canadians. They are enabling Harpers pursut of power and tyranny, including his dismantling of democracy. They are dancing with the dictator so to speak. This is how they hold on to their jobs. I don't think most of them had much independent thought or self worth going in to politics. Very few Brent Rathgerbers. Most of them were rewarded for their obedience to Harper by be being appointed to positions and cabinets that they neither had talent nor ability for. No problems though, as they were told how to vote and given talking points when they needed to speak. Have you ever seen a more talentless, uncouth, nonthinking, inept government like this one? As much as Harper is the one who with every fiber of his being, is the one who demands to be obeyed, he like his serfs has no self esteem. Men/woman of intelligence and self esteem neither seek control over others nor obey anyone who demands that control. What do they think of themselves after they have obeyed? Do they feel good about being obedient? Do they look at themselves in the mirror and say I am a Man/woman of integrity? My guess and it's only a guess, is that they do very little if any introspection. My guess with Harper, when he is able to get control over someone, he feels powerful, but this feeling does not last, unlike self esteem it cannot be sustained and when he is not able to control a desired candidate, he falls apart. I agree with your analysis and conclusion of Del Mastro. "If they are propping up an evil oligarch who is hell bent on victimizing every one he can get his hands on and destroying our democracy while he's at it, let's not feel bad for them", says it all. Harper like all dictators has made a mistake in thinking obedient serfs will stay loyal to him. Obedient people have their best before date stamped and many of Harpers serfs are jumping ship.

the salamander said...

.. another very thoughtful & stimulating perspective.. thank you. I'd like to adjust your aim a bit higher though.. Looking past the obvious maladroits lickspittle MP's .. who are the unelected power players? Ah.. Ray Novak - manboy of mystery.. and lesser lights Jenni Byrne and Stephen Lecce.. and of course lawyers like Arthur Hamilton. These are the people directly under Harper who drive control of MP's Senators PMO Party wanks & cranks, book RoboWars, endless legal appeals and approve or control Harper message input/output & Brand Image

What compells these shrill partisan creatures.. who seemingly have little life other than serving in Harper's toxic shadow What should Canadians make of secret weapon reformer Laureen Harper? Her new resolve to serve.. no, exalt her hubby. What is wrong with her? What is the Harper marriage all about actually? Love? Adoration? Politics? What to make of the 2nd smartest guy in the room, Jason Kenney? who lives with his mommy? The Minister of Everything Harper defers or is bored by.

As always.. I measure our most senior Public Servants (that's what they are elected to be) by whether they are 'Glowing Hearts' or not. When the entire government (our government) fails to meet that basic required criteria.. we should start looking very closely at what they are up to .. instead of representing our dreams needs and wishes