compliance or complicity?

Heavy talk with friends, lately – about the ethos of the age being caught up in urgency and crisis, possibly such that we fail to recognize the sweep of history and our complicity with trends we would ethically not choose if we were aware of the relation between our immediate, daily lives and how the simple things we do, moment-by-moment, actually compose larger historical trends.
The NYTimes published a piece on the infamous Milgram Experiments (social psychology) earlier this month, posing the question: would you pull that switch? The article details some new findings that help to understand both the context (why were – and are :-/ – so many people willing to cause pain to others?) and the range of individual reasons for responding to the context as they actually did.
Contextually, subjects were disoriented by the unfamiliarity of the situation, and they were rushed – put under time pressure. The combination of uncertainty and urgency resulted in disorientation – with its obvious (if undetermined) influence on decision-making. This may be a stretch, but it brings to mind some audience reactions to “The Dark Knight” last night, in which people laughed at moments that seemed produced to disturb, while missing designed moments of humor. It struck me as a delayed reaction caused (possibly) by the frenetic pace of volatile action. Similar dynamics occur in interpersonal interactions too, for instance, when people laugh upon hearing awful news – a miscued reaction because of the awkwardness of the situation.
So, there is the matter of complicity – a rather unconscious going-along-with the zeitgeist (or, for some, a conscious embrace of the spirit of the times – for all kinds of reasons), and then there is the matter of compliance. Expressions of pain, per se, were not usually conclusive in convincing switch-pullers to stop. This is what is used to illustrate that the obedience factor is such a deep component of human behavior, and – more subtly – “demonstrate[s] individual differences in perceptions of accountability.” (In my imagination, it is not hard to extend this to all the ways in which we – the relatively privileged – turn away from the cries of the relatively un/underprivileged. Pain – especially that of others – is insufficient as a motivator.)
However, “the demand by the subject to stop [is now identified] as the turning point.” People who disregarded this were going to continue, no matter what – their conception of authority/authorization/responsibility/accountability simply ended at the “fact” of the social scientific structure. Those who did stop – whether sooner or later – exercised some personal judgment, “decid[ing] that the learner’s right to stop trumped the experimenter’s right to continue.”
The phrasing of this interests me, particularly in my professional role as teacher, and even more specifically as a teacher interested in cultivating critical thinking skills, using non-standard pedagogies and experimenting with the boundaries of student expectations concerning what a college class is supposed to be. There is power in this position, and I use it – intentionally, deliberately, yet – I hope – with compassion for how challenging it is to have the common or usual disrupted in service of a goal that can only be presented in amorphous and ambiguous terms.
Related information at “Psychologists find a way to replicate Milgram’s classic obedience experiment.”

One thought on “compliance or complicity?”

  1. “as a teacher interested in cultivating critical thinking skills, using non-standard pedagogies and experimenting with the boundaries of student expectations concerning what a college class is supposed to be. There is power in this position, and I use it – intentionally, deliberately, yet – I hope – with compassion for how challenging it is to have the common or usual disrupted in service of a goal that can only be presented in amorphous and ambiguous terms.”
    This reminds me that we need to talk more where we left off on the topic of pedagogy a year ago. You’ve elegantly summarized, in two brief sentences, my primary ethos for teaching. As I prepare to teach Public Speaking this Fall, I’ve been going through your blog(s) for inspiration on teaching “experiments” ­čÖé You rock, and I intend to shamelessly try out some of your methods… hey, one step in making them not so non-standard, right?
    Thanks for tying it in to the larger picture, and for the cautions sounded.

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