Friday, September 11, 2009

A Reader Writes: Can the Milgram Experiment Be Applied to Cyberbullying?

Since I blogged earlier today about my need to look for those shining threads that pull my mind and heart forward by providing me with new moral insight, and since I have stinted readers of this blog throughout the week by not posting here, I'd like to upload an email discussion I've just had with someone who read one of my previous postings and recently contacted me about it. The posting in question is my posting on connections between the Milgram experiment and school bullying.

The person who emailed me about that posting is beginning a doctoral dissertation that will focus on cyberbullying. She wonders if it's possible to make connections between the Milgram experiment and cyberbullying. In the view of this correspondent, it's possible that the Milgram experiment demonstrates a human tendency not only to practice cruelty simply because an authority figure commands us to do so, but a tendency as well to ramp up our cruelty when we feel at a remove from the object of our cruelty.

And so my correspondent wants to investigate whether students who engage in online bullying feel a sense of removal from their victim that enables them to ignore their responsibility for the pain they inflict. It's possible, this researcher thinks, that online technology invites cruelty in some young people who would otherwise not bully, by providing those young people a sense of distancing from the person they are bullying online.

And here's what I wrote in response:

I can't claim to have done much research on cyberbullying, but what you say makes intuitive sense to me. When people feel that their identities are shielded, and that they can function at a remove from those they intimidate, it strikes me that they may well be inclined to enhance their tactics of intimidation.

I know the impulse myself. When I post on a blog under a username, there is always a temptation to say things I probably would not say in my own persona, under my own name. I try not to succumb to that temptation. But I still know it's there, tugging at me.

And I wonder if that tug accounts for the raucous nature of many blog discussions. I recently read a blog discussion that became downright ugly, and very quickly. One of the posters who uses the blog name Mean Girl was gratuitously insulting--well, mean, actually--to other posters. The whole discussion quickly got out of hand, with insults flying in all directions.

I'm not sure that would have happened, had all those bloggers been talking face to face. I imagine they would still have had their strong opinions and animosities. But I also suspect that they would probably have been inclined to express them more judiciously and with more civility than they did when their identities were shielded by usernames.

There is something about being at a remove from the object of our cruelty (whether that cruelty is intentional or not) that does permit us to be more cruel, I think. The German theologian Dorothee Sölle wrote about this following the Vietnam War, in her book Of War and Love (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983). She argues (convincingly, I think) that technologies for warfare invented in the 20th century (e.g., the atomic bomb, napalm in the Vietnam War, etc.) brings warfare to an even more dehumanizing level than any we've seen in the past.

As she notes, prior to the development of such modern technologies for waging war, people at least saw the human faces of those they killed with swords, bows and arrows, and even cannons and rifles. Now we can fly over a place, drop bombs or canisters of gel designed to set people afire, and never seen any human faces at all, though millions may die.

Cruelty is perhaps always easier to practice when we do not have to face the object of our cruelty, and when we can, in various ways, convince ourselves that it is not another human being like ourselves we are tormenting, but someone whose humanity is distant from our own, and not at the same level as ours.