A Skeptical Look at the Milgram Experiment

Jenny Diski takes a skeptical look at the value of Milgram’s famous experiment in the latest London Review of Books. Was Milgram’s shock machine, and the paperback hand-wringing about conscience and obedience that followed, just the reality TV of its day?

We sucked in the awful tales of human beings and their fathomless vileness like babies on a truth tit. It’s funny that the postwar children have come to be regarded as a formlessly liberal generation when, as I recall, one of the main projects was to confront the dark side of humankind in order to learn how it might be neutralised. We might well have been guilty of thinking too shallowly, of gulping our facts and developing a taste for the bitter; but happy-go-lucky, laissez-faire and carefree is not how I remember it. After the Holocaust, man’s capacity for cruelty no longer seemed to be something to do with the remote past and its lack of indoor lavatory facilities or comprehensive schools, but was what our own parents were capable of doing. And if our own parents, then with the added blast of the newly discovered structure of the double helix that wove our parents into our every cell, why not us?

It didn’t seem possible (surely, no one thinks of themselves as being rotten?), but the banality of evil, or at any rate the quotidian nature of mercilessness, was there in front of our eyes, and the postwar generation of social scientists were intent on devising ways to prove it. We marched against nuclear weapons not just because of their moral poverty, but also because the more we found out about what humanity was capable of, the less we could be deceived by the notion that safety lay in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. It seemed like a good idea to know the awful truth about ourselves, although nowadays I’m not sure that just knowing helps much. We were, if ever there was one, the generation which believed that to know thyself was to be in a position to change. We must have botched the first task, because we’ve certainly bungled the second.

I suspect, however, that we failed to notice a missing term in the proposition. Between knowing ourselves and change, lay the chasm of how change might come about. An ill-digested Freudianism suggested that only awareness was necessary for the great catharsis. Bring the dark out into the light, show what is hidden, and all will be well. You have to become aware of what you (that is, we) are like and then, somehow, you (that is, we) will be different. Thinking of this kind was the problem with the obedience experiment. Milgram set out with the echoes of Nuremberg and the almost contemporary Eichmann trial in his mind: perhaps it wasn’t just Germans who did what they were told. But having discovered that Americans, too, valued obedience to authority, that indeed we are all inclined to do what we are told, there was as ever no automatic bridge between knowing and changing. We must learn from this, Milgram said; we all said. But no one said how we were supposed to learn from it. It seemed it should have been obvious.

Plainly, it wasn’t. In spite of the atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam, the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, this very year, politicians and public alike in the US and the UK declared themselves baffled, disbelieving and amazed that American and British soldiers could torture and humiliate Iraqi prisoners. They meant, usually, American and British soldiers. Not even the elementary lesson Milgram had to teach has been absorbed. It is still thought that bad guys do bad things and good guys (that’s us) don’t do bad things. That’s how you tell the difference. Then it turned out, quite recently, that telling the difference was a very big problem. For politicians (criminally self-interested or criminally sincere) to declare our natural goodness and their natural badness is one thing, but that anyone believes there is an inherently moral distinction which can be defined geographically or racially means people just haven’t been paying attention to what  — of which the Milgram study was little more than a reiteration and foreshadowing — made hideously clear. Tell people to go to war, and mostly they will. Tell them to piss on prisoners, and mostly they will. Tell them to cover up lies, and mostly they will. Authority is government, the media, the business sector, the priestly men and women in white coats or mitres. We are trained up in the structure of the family, in school, in work. Most people do what they are told. Apparently, a majority of people in this country did not want to join the US in making war on Iraq. This country joined the US in its catastrophic adventure nevertheless. The dissenters marched and argued and put posters up in their windows, but … Great passions were aroused, and yet … For the past eighteen months, the Independent newspaper has been producing astonishing front pages to make you weep, still … It all happened, and goes on. It could be inertia, or a sense of helplessness, or it could be that our fear of the consequences of disobedience holds sway over our judgment. It looks as if in every generation there is moral panic and a perception (or hallucination of the horror to come) of the next generation as having lost its predisposition to be obedient. Civilisation depends on most of us doing what we are told most of the time. Real civilisation, however, depends on Milgram’s 35 per cent who eventually get round to thinking for themselves.

But that, too, is a lazy, sentimental attitude. The 65/35 per cent split between the compliant and the resistant is just another version of good and bad, and leaves us essentially ignorant and free to declare our particular righteousness. Bush can take Milgram’s division to signify Americans and Terrorists; bin Laden can use it to denounce the evil West to the Followers of Allah; Hitler to set Germans against Jews; Zionists to divide Jews from Palestinians. And Milgram is no help at all.

“There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring a thousand non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.” — Robert S. McNamara,

I noted that a new phone tax resistance campaign had been launched by a coalition of anti-war groups.

Phone tax resistance, because it’s fairly easy to do and almost completely risk-free, is seen by some tax resisters as a way of getting timid people to dip their toes in the pool. Other resisters don’t see these qualities as ones that make phone tax resistance worth recommending: “Why this clinging to phone taxes as a way of protesting war? I assume everyone likes it is because it’s safe. For those reasons it’s also entirely symbolic and almost completely meaningless. Can’t we come up with new tactics?”

I think the skeptics win this round. The hanguponwar.org site is down, and the site where it has been mirrored (http://www.nwtrcc.org/hanguponwar.org/) is only semi-functional. The most recent Google cache of the signatories page reveals that as of , a whole 110 people had signed on.

A modest and inoffensive campaign, demanding little from its participants, and without even enough infrastructure to maintain a functioning website for a year. It’s almost as if it had been designed to fail. Let’s make note of it, learn our lesson, and move on without over-doing the “hearts were in the right place” nonsense. There’s a war on, and the road to that particular hell was paved with just such good intentions.