The “Experimenter”: Understanding Why Shit Happens and How Conformity Kills

The “Experimenter”: Understanding Why Shit Happens and How Conformity Kills

October 17, 2017

by Doug “Uncola” Lynn:

During inclement weather days, late nights, lazy weekends, and when one’s eyes tire of small print or words and images levitating in digital ether, Netflix offers a video library of sorts allowing the viewer to recline, and imbibe knowledge in a relatively easy way.  Many of Netflix’s films consist of documentaries, nonfiction stories originating from books, historical retellings, or fictionalized narratives derived from actual circumstances and people. Two such films, recently viewed by the author of this post, are historical accounts, originated from books, and retold from the perspective of the actual persons who lived the events recounted therein. These two films, currently showing on Netflix, include: “First They Killed My Father” (2017) and “Experimenter” (2015).

The former film is a Netflix Original and based upon the 2000 book, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers”, written by Loung Ung.  Loung was a five-year-old Cambodian girl living in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge subjugated the city forcing the Ung family to flee into what later became known as the Cambodian Killing Fields.  The latter film retells the story behind the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments which took place at Yale University in 1961.

Loung Ung’s father was a Captain in the military police for the Lon Nol government.  He correctly believed it was wrong for Cambodians to have placed their faith in the resolve of the lying and politically schizophrenic United States Government during the Vietnam War.  Yet, at the same time, he feared the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot and the unification of Cambodia under the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

The Ung family lived a comfortable upper-middle-class existence right up until the Khmer Rouge defeated the Khmer Republic of Lon Nol; and everything changed terribly when the rebels marched into the city of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

 

We must welcome our brothers! Cambodians unite!  Brothers, you are welcome. We don’t want any bloodshed. We are all Cambodians. Our country is in our hands. Angkar has prevailed throughout the country.

 – Phnom Penh Authorities to Communist Khmer Rebels, “ First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Angelina Jolie, Loung Ung, Netflix Originals, Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

However, the film’s title is somewhat of a misnomer, because the killing of Loung Ung’s father was not actually the first of the atrocities committed by the communist rebels. In reality, his death occurred much later in the timeline of dire events. Initially, the inhabitants of the city were made to vacate their homes. Then, they were moved to rural areas.

 

Surrender your weapons. You may now answer to Angkar. Take off your shirts! And your shoes!  Get onto the trucks. Keep moving. You’ll be safe in the countryside. You can return in three days. Do not question Angkar.

– Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

In no time, entire families throughout the city were stripped of their material possessions and conscripted into the service of the new government.

 

Comrade Angkar needs your truck! You no longer need it. Comrade! Your watch. Angkar needs it. Hand it over. Give it to Angkar.

 

You don’t need money anymore. In the new Cambodia, there will be no banking and no private property. No rich, no poor, no class. We are all the same now.

 

On the carts! Put down what you are carrying. Angkar rejects everything that was part of imperialist and feudalist society. Foreign possessions corrupt the people of this country. You must renounce all personal property. Get rid of your selfish ways of thinking. Angkar will take care of you. Angkar is your family now. Follow me! Quickly! Your place is over there.

– Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

In fact, the communists did not come for Loung Ung’s father until one hour and eight minutes into the film.  This was exactly halfway, with one hour and eight minutes remaining.  It is a very touching scene where Seng Im Ung says goodbye first to his wife, then his children.  While this is happening, two rebel soldiers stood there watching without mercy or exhibiting any empathetic feelings whatsoever, before shouting:  “Enough! Time to go!”

 

Angkar leads the revolution in Kampuchea!  Discard your old ways of thinking.  Angkar will destroy all enemies, visible and invisible!

 – Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

Watching the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge in First They Killed My Father caused the author of this post to ponder the following question:

“How could any human being act so calloused and unfeeling towards his fellow countrymen?”

The answer was discovered, in part, upon viewing the second, aforementioned, film, “Experimenter” (2015). This motion picture illustrated the life and times of Stanley Milgram (1933 – 1984), an American social psychologist who obtained his PHD from Harvard University and later taught at Yale, Harvard, and the City University of New York Graduate Center.

The film was somewhat unconventional in that the actor who portrayed Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard, would, at times, speak directly to the camera explaining his thoughts in a conversational manner to the viewers.  Furthermore, entire scenes were filmed against fake backdrops as if to say the settings were secondary to the perspectives of Milgram as the film’s protagonist.  In a few scenes, including the instances when Sarsgaard, playing Milgram, spoke of Milgram’s Jewish ancestry in relation to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Eastern Europe during World War II, an actual elephant would appear behind the actor as if to instruct the viewers that what was being said was, in fact, the “elephant in the room”; or rather, Milgram’s motivation behind his experiments on conformity and obedience.

One of Stanley Milgram’s early mentors was Solomon E. Asch, a Gestalt Psychologist who conducted the famous Line Experiments in the 1950’s which revealed the effects of social pressure on individual judgment.  Also called the Conformity Experiments, the study consisted of groups of eight male college students, all of which, but one, were actors.  As an assortment of solid black lines was presented to the group, each subject was asked to choose, in order, which two lines matched in length.  As the experiment progressed, the seven actors who were part of the study would purposely choose the wrong line.  In turn, it was found that three-quarters of the test subjects chose to override their own judgement at least some of the time, ignoring the evidence of their own eyes. Specifically, they succumbed to peer pressure and conformed to the group. The experiment also showed that the test subjects’ incorrect responses were directly impacted by the level of majority opinion within the groups.

Obviously, Stanley Milgram wanted to push the conformity testing further, to what he acknowledged as greater considerations than the mere perception of the lengths of lines.

Accordingly, two decades after Solomon Asch’s Line Experiments, Milgram’s 1974 book, “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View”, was an expansion of his original 1961 findings entitled, “The Behavioral Study of Obedience” which was published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963. In these experiments on obedience, willing participants were paid up front and told they could keep their participation money in any event; and that the payment was simply for coming in to the lab. Ostentatiously, it was proclaimed to be a study on the effect of punishment on learning.  In actuality, however, it was an experiment on the willingness of people to follow orders.

 

Comrades! Go get some berries and dye your clothes, so you can get rid of all colors. We are all equal.

You must obey Angkar.  Angkar is the ruler. Come forward. Comrade! Sit over there. There is no more individualism or private property. You must rid yourself of personal possessions.

 – Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

During the experiment an “Experimenter” served as the authority figure wearing a gray lab coat who, professedly, explained the experiment’s procedures to both a “Teacher” and a “Learner”.  In truth, however, the Experimenter and the Learner were both actors and part of the study.  It was the Teacher who was the actual test subject being researched; and the real experimenters were Stanley Milgram, and his associates, behind the mirrored glass not shown here:

 

 

The Teacher, unknowingly, took part in a charade where he helped the Experimenter attach a shock mechanism onto the Learner, who is, again, an actor. The Learner told the Experimenter, or the faux authority figure, that he had a slight heart condition and questioned how painful were the shocks. The Experimenter, wearing the lab coat, and in the presence of the Teacher, told the Learner in a matter-of-fact manner that, although the shocks can be extremely painful, they won’t cause any permanent tissue damage.

The Experimenter would then enter another room along with the Teacher and asked if, out of fairness, it would be okay to give the Teacher a sample shock, like what the Learner was about to experience.  This was done so the Teacher fully understood the type of punishment being administered.  Of course, the Teachers, wanting to be fair, agreed to be shocked.  They then received a moderately uncomfortable electrical charge of what they were told was 45 volts.

Next, the Teacher was instructed to announce a number of word-pairs through a microphone that was broadcast into the Learner’s room. The Teacher could not see the Learner but was told the Learner could hear what the Teacher said, and that the microphone was not set-up for two-way communication.

After the Teacher recited a large number of word-pairs, they would then start over, stating the first word only, while providing the Learner with four words in the form of a multiple choice. Only one of the multiple choice options was the correct match to the first word as stated earlier. In other words, the Teacher was instructed that the Learner must correctly match the second word to the first from the original pairings.  To do this, the Learner selected from one of four buttons that, correspondingly, lit up and buzzed on the Teacher’s phony shock-generator console.  Each time the Learner chose an incorrect word, the Teacher then “punished” the Learner through an ascending level of electrical shock levers on the console ranging from “light shock” all the way up to 450 volts, which was marked in red letters:  “DANGER: Severe Shock XXX”.

To summarize, every time the Learner missed a word-match, the Teacher was instructed to increase the electric voltage on the imaginary shock-generator’s console.  As the voltage increased, a constant tape-recording of the Learner began to simulate expressed discomfort which could be heard on the other side of the wall; and, in every instance, as the shocks increased to a certain level of intensity, the Learner’s voice could be heard through the wall saying that they wanted to terminate the experiment.   But when the Teacher petitioned the Experimenter, as an authority figure, to stop, they were told in a calm, cool, manner to continue; and that the experiment could not end until the Learner got all of the answers correct.

As the voltage continued up the scale, the Learner eventually became silent in the other room. The Teacher was instructed that silence was a wrong answer and to continue increasing the shocks.  When some of the Teachers would ask the Experimenter, as the authority figure, to check on the Learner, they were told this was not possible once the experiment was underway.  Subsequently, some of the Teachers, becoming anxious, would ask if the Experimenter would take responsibility. When the authority figure responded that they would, the Teachers, invariably, continued delivering the electric shocks.

Milgram’s first set of experiments showed that a 65% majority of individuals continued administering the shocks up to 450 volts, the maximum amount.

 

Angkar is all powerful. Angkar is the savior and liberator of the Khmer people. Work your hardest for Angkar. Give your all. Comrades! Now, the rice field is your paper and the hoe is your pen. Give everything. Dig a straight line! Keep the rows straight. Keep on working!

The comrades on the front line need rice and vegetables. Get back to work in the fields.  Angkar is your mother and your father. Angkar needs strong young men and women. The revolution is not only in this village. It is taking place throughout Kampuchea! Angkar knows what is best for every one of us. Think with a revolutionary mindset.

 – Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

After the experiment the Teachers would be asked a series of questions by Milgram, or one of his associates:

 

  • Why did you give the Learner the shocks?  “Well, I wanted to stop”, was a typical reply.

 

  • Could you tell the Learner was in pain?  “Yes.”

 

  • Did the Learner tell you that he wanted to stop the experiment?  “Yes.”

 

  • Did he have a right to stop the experiment? “I don’t know.”

 

  • Why didn’t you stop when the Learner asked you to stop?  “Because I was told to continue.”

 

  • Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain?  “Because I thought the experiment depended on me.”

 

  • Who bore the responsibility? “I don’t know. “

 

Milgram’s own father and mother were Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Romania, respectively, who considered themselves fortunate to immigrate to America during World War I.  Other members of Milgram’s family survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II and Stanley hoped his obedience experiments would explain how “civilized human beings participated in destructive, inhumane acts”; how genocide was “implemented so systematically, so efficiently”; and how the “perpetrators” of murder lived with themselves.

 

 

The expectations of the experiments by Professor Milgram and other academics were that a very small minority of people would continue the shocks to the highest voltage available. In fact, the exact opposite happened. It seemed as if the Teachers in the study wanted to please the authority figure; the Experimenter.  In Milgram’s 1974 “Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View”, nineteen variations of the experiment were described, including some not previously reported, and the results were similar; across ethnic lines, gender, having the Learner pound on the wall, having the Teacher forcibly place the Learner’s hand on an electric plate to receive the shock; even changing the location in order to minimize the intimidation of an Ivy League setting.  The results varied, but not by much.  The Teachers would show anxiety, yet they would advance to the last switch of 450 volts that said “Danger Severe Shock XXX”.  They did this under no compulsion other than because they were politely instructed to continue.  Moreover, out of 780 subjects, not one of the Teacher participants got out of their chair to check on the physical status of the Learner subjects.

 

Report any wrongdoing to Angkar. You must keep each other in check. It’s better to make a mistake and kill an innocent person then leave an enemy alive.

 – Khmer Rouge Rebels, “First They Killed My Father”, (2017), Netflix Originals

 

Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments ended on May 27th 1962. Four days later, Adolf Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem. Eichmann was just one of several upper-echelon Nazi defendants to cite his obedience to the law. He never denied his crimes and he showed no remorse.  On the contrary, Eichmann said he was “merely a transmitter; he never did anything great or small without express instructions from his superiors”.

 

 

To be fair, there are those today who correctly question Milgram’s own apparent calloused manipulation. It seems he was obsessed in determining why people follow orders to the point that he caused the extreme mental anguish of those (Teachers) who were deceived into believing they were harming others (Learners).  At one point in the “Experimenter” film, when a Harvard student questioned the ethics of the deception behind the obedience experiments, Milgram became defensive and shut down the conversation.

Additionally, there were, of course, profound differences between those who committed twentieth-century crimes against humanity and the test subjects of Milgram’s obedience experiments.  The author, James Waller, in his 2007 book “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing” (pp. 111-113), argued that the subjects of Milgram’s experiments were assured up front that no permanent harm would result from their actions; that the laboratory subjects did not necessarily devalue their victims; the Milgram test subjects exhibited remorse; and that the subjects had no time to contemplate their actions.

All fine assertions, but don’t they, in fact, add credence to Milgram’s findings?  For example, if normally harmless people can be politely manipulated into harming others, imagine how much easier it is to pressure the politically-motivated, and criminally-minded, into conformity as mandated by a collective majority.

The Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, claimed:

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.

This quote is stated more than once in the “Experimenter”  film and, actually, appears to be its cinematic theme; as well as representative, overall, of the enigmatic life of Stanley Milgram. Moreover, it is, perhaps, the only way to understand the endless historical parade of consequences brought about by those following orders throughout history.

It was author and philosopher, Ayn Rand, who once identified the individual as the “smallest minority on earth”.  But when reason, responsibility, and accountability, are transferred from the individual to the collective, it seems any wickedness becomes possible. In fact, it is absolutely predictable, and quite often, even banal; proving once again how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Ironically, in one scene of “Experimenter”, the actor playing Stanley Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard, looks to the camera while holding a copy of “Speak Memory” by  Vladimir Nabokov, and quotes the following from that book:

 

The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

 

Paradoxically, Vladimir Nabokov’s younger sister, Olga, was a close friend of Ayn Rand.  In fact, Olga Nabokov is credited to have helped  “awaken” Rand’s interest in politics; and the Nabokov family fled to Crimea the same year as did Rand, in 1917, in response to the Bolshevik Revolution.  Furthermore, Vladimir Nabokov’s younger brother, Sergey, died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, after publicly speaking out against Hitler’s regime.

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

To understand the future we must look to the past.  History repeats, thus, ignorance is no excuse. Multiple illustrations over the last century demonstrate how it often became fashionable for people to blindly submit to authority, or conform to group influence, instead of accepting the evidence of their own minds.  This is, after all, how shit happens.

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