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.