Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Milgram Experiment and School Bullying

Thinking, as the day goes on, about what the Milgram experiment shows us about human nature, and the connection of that experiment to school bullying. Researcher Stanley Milgram of Yale University demonstrated in the 1960s that an overwhelming majority of human beings—that is, of us—are willing to inflict pain on others at the behest of an authority figure, even when the pain they/we are inflicting is evident to those/us causing the pain.

Milgram’s experiment had research subjects shock other subjects with electric shocks, ratcheting up the current when told to do so. Unbeknownst to those doing the shocking, no electric current was transmitted in these experiments.

But the recipients of the shocks were actors hired to demonstrate pain when shocked. Even when the amount of electricity commanded by the authority figure appeared to cause increasing levels of pain, even severe pain, as exhibited in the actions of those receiving the shocks, the vast majority of those commanded to inflict pain continued to do so when instructed to do so.

The conclusion Milgram reached is rather bleak: the majority of human beings will not second-guess an authority figure when they are instructed to inflict pain on others, even when that pain is evident to them. Milgram states,

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority (“The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s Magazine [1974]).

I see all kinds of links to school bullying. In every case of school bullying I’ve ever examined, there is a tacit assumption on the part of those doing and justifying the bullying that an unidentified authority figure commands and approves the bullying. School bullying is thus, in the minds of those doing the bullying, a kind of socially-approved punishment of someone who is seen as refusing to conform to socially mandated norms of behavior.

We live in a society whose outlook is overwhelmingly heterosexist. Because the majority of us take for granted that heterosexuality (and heterosexism) are normative, many of us see anyone who transgresses the norms of heterosexuality as deliberately refusing to obey widely accepted social (and/or ethical) norms. Because the majority of us think and feel this way, we are hesitant to conclude that someone who is bullied—particularly a boy viewed as gender-inappropriate—does not somehow "cause" and merit his bullying.

When no authority figure stands up to those who think this way, who deliver lumps on the basis of their heterosexist assumptions, it is even easier to conclude that the bullied boy has elicited and deserves his punishment. School officials, teachers, and parents are always a part of the matrix from which bullying arises, insofar as they do not speak out authoritatively, immediately, and strongly to stop the bullying process. Any silence at all on their part, any hesitancy, any suggestion that the person being bullied is not innocent, feeds the insidious assumptions that justify and enable bullying.

What bullies have going for them is the tacit approval of a silent majority. When the majority remain silent in the face of obvious pain inflicted on someone who has clearly not merited such pain, except by being different and behaving differently, the circle of authority justifying the bullying appears complete: authority figures do not speak up; peers remain silent; those delivering the punishment have a social warrant for engaging in violence.

In this way, the groundwork is laid for bullying that can become so often repeated that it is well-nigh habitual, for escalating violence against the person bullied, and for strong backlash when anyone raises questions about this circle of violence. It is shocking—but entirely predictable—that when news breaks of a person who has been bullied in a school system for year after year, the majority of people in the community and the school, including a majority of the peers of the person bullied, clamor loudly about how the person bullied deserves his torment.

Hidden inside the nexus of social assumptions by which bullying is justified and perpetuated is a nasty moral warrant: namely, that the majority of people cannot be wrong.

The Milgram experiment suggests otherwise. Indeed, the Milgram experiment (and what happened in Nazi Germany) suggest that, when pain is being inflicted on others for no reason than who the person being beaten and humiliated is, the majority of people are always wrong.

Steve’s reflections on moral education are right. Something is awry in societies that somehow manage to teach people that it is nobler to inflict pain on convenient social targets, than to stand up to those who behave this way.

Something is not happening in our educational process when a majority of students in a school and town where an incident of longstanding bullying has been exposed leap to the defense of those doing the bullying and vilify the person bullied. Something is very wrong with the unchallenged assumption that simply because one has a penis, is bellicose, physically commanding, and capable of inflicting pain on a “weaker” person, one is justified in doing so. Something is morally awry in societies in which such breathtaking entitlement on the part of macho men goes not only unquestioned but bolstered by the majority of citizens.

Something is rotten at the very core of societies who allow some boys to think of themselves as swaggering little lords of creation, of whom little is expected (intellectually, interpersonally) than to become the watchdogs of social orthodoxy who are willing to beat others into submission. Something is wrong in societies that place a premium on male swagger and athletic ability, but not on sensitivity, creativity, and the ability to relate constructively to the world around them.

When bullying perdures—and when it is so quickly and easily justified, when it goes on and on with alarming repetitiveness in our society—our schools and churches are clearly not teaching something that is essential to the constitution of a healthy, humane society. We need to find better ways to educate the hearts of our youth, and not merely their bodies and minds.

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