Wednesday, April 14, 2010


This originally started as a comment I was making on my killing at a distance post (aka talking to myself). I was writing it in response to someone I know who more or less said they didn't want to/didn't need to watch the collateral murder video. I wanted to figure out why exactly I felt the video was important for all Americans to watch, and I ended up going off on a tangent so I decided to post it instead...

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One of the easiest and most basic ways to bring strain and discomfort to an end is avoidance. Our tax dollars and our apathy form the fuel that feeds the wars we're waging, yet we go out of our way to shield ourselves from the suffering we help create. It is crucial to remove the buffers and look directly at what lies at the end of the chain we're all linked into. By allowing some of this strain to be felt, the chance of us doing more (or anything) to stop things we feel are wrong becomes more likely. And even (or especially) if we still plan to do nothing, we should at least have the respect to not turn away simply so we can feel more comfortable in our daily lives.

This is all straight out of Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority (more on this in an upcoming post). In his experiments, subjects would often turn their heads to avoid seeing the suffering of the victim they were being ordered to shock. "These subjects do not permit the stimuli associated with the victim's suffering to impinge on them." Denial, practiced by the media in ways I mentioned in my killing at a distance post, is another common shield used to reduce strain. "Rejecting apparent evidence in order to arrive at a more consoling interpretation of events." When net strain exceeds the strength of the binding factors, disobedience occurs. (Binding factors include things like situational etiquette, anxiety, and recurrent actions1.) Unfortunately there are many easy ways to resolve or diminish strain, much like a maintenance worker turning a valve to let out some steam in a giant machine.

It didn't occur to me until writing this that Milgram's text can also be seen as a blueprint on the psychology of revolution. Almost everything about modern American life exists in some way to let off steam. When you think about it in these terms, everything seems designed to make sure the strain never exceeds the binding factors (it doesn't hurt that we're biologically programmed to avoid feeling uncomfortable). History tells us that revolution tends to take place only when people's lives become "unlivable" -- physically, of course, but also psychologically.

Milgram's book also helped me see that when the solider in the video says "it's their fault for bringing their kids into battle," it's actually a heartening moment because he's asserting his humanity. Blaming the victim is one of the most common ways to relieve the strain caused by doing something you were told to do but that you felt was wrong. I now think this probably has more to do with the comment than the systemic training of turning Iraqis into "others" (though that's certainly part of the equation).

1 "[When] each action influences the next. The obedient act is perseverative; after the initial instructions, the experimenter does not command the subject to initiate a new act but simply to continue doing what he is doing. The recurrent nature of the action demanded of the subject itself creates binding forces. As the subject delivers more and more painful shocks, he must seek to justify to himself what he has done; one form of justification is to go to the end. For if he breaks off, he must say to himself: "Everything I have done to this point is bad, and I now acknowledge it by breaking off." But if he goes on, he is reassured about his past performance. Earlier actions give rise to discomforts, which are neutralized by later ones. And the subject is implicated into the destructive behavior in piecemeal fashion." --Milgram

1 comment:

Hectocotylus said...

Interestingly, dissent can also be used as a strain reducing mechanism. "The subject publicly defines himself as opposed to shocking the victim and thus establishes a desirable self image. At the same time, he maintains his submissive relationship to authority by continuing to obey."