November 25th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Cognitive Distress

Some of you question the diagnosis of my mild autism, because you've never seen much particularly autistic behavior from me. But that would be because I'm a 46 year old with Asperger's Syndrome who has gone to incredible lengths, including training by some of the best, to learn to suppress those behaviors, especially when in public. Most of you have never seen me under the three circumstances where my coping skills break down: when facing life-threatening (or perceived by me to be credibly life-threatening) threat, when forced off-script by situations or group behavior that's unfamiliar to me, or when I find evidence that contradicts some of my core beliefs about myself. I have a reputation for being impossible to persuade to change my mind. Which flatly isn't true, ask kukla_tko42 or the_geoffrey, who do it all the time. However, I am from Missouri, the "Show-Me State," and even more than for most Missourians, "You have to show me." However, when you do "show me" that I'm wrong about a core belief about myself, the result is severe cognitive distress.

And I had a bad case of cognitive distress yesterday morning, even worse than when I read You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery by Richard Stengel a couple of years ago. I couldn't sit still, my hands were constantly flapping when I wasn't using them to press my eyes shut, I was horribly agitated to the point of pounding on the walls. Why? Because nancylebov posted a link to social psychology researcher Philip Zimbardo's follow-up article on Abu Ghraib, "You Can't be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel" on the Edge Foundation's website at edge.org. I spent most of the day at Zimbardo's website catching up on his research findings, which did little to lessen my stress, which is why I spent much of the rest of the day in bed in near-catatonic withdrawl. The man is clearly on to something, and the something that he's on to is deeply distressing. You might find it deeply distressing, too.

You've almost certainly heard of Richard Zimbardo, in passing, because one of his research projects from the 1970s got mentioned a lot in the immediate aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, his 1971 "Stanford Prison Experiment." Zimbardo, a former high school classmate of the disgraced Dr. Stanley Milgram, had taken up his friend's research into to what extent evil behavior is socially conditioned, that is to say, under what circumstances do people with no predisposition towards evil behavior do so anyway. So for a study of to what extent prisoner abuse is less a product of individual sadistic prison guards than of the design of our prisons, he replicated a typical American jail in the basement of the psych department at Stanford University. He then went out and hired 24 vacationing young adults, out of a pool of over a hundred applicants: 12 guards and 12 prisoners. The 24 who were chosen had to pass an extensive battery of psychological exams, tests, and interviews to weed out anybody with the slightest tendencies towards violence or anti-social behavior; indeed, the majority of those selected were pacifists who had come to the Bay Area to protest the Vietnam War. The Palo Alto PD voluntarily performed standard mock arrests on the 12 "prisoners" and delivered them to the Stanford "jail" where the 12 "guards," working 8 hour shifts 40 hours a week in teams of 3, were to keep the prisoners safely locked up for a period of two weeks, meant to simulate the amount of time someone might wait for a hearing.

By day three, he was discharging people from the experiment in a panic because they were undergoing severe mental breakdowns. By day nine of the projected 14 day experiment, he had to cancel the whole experiment and persuade all of the 24 subjects into entering prolonged therapy, and to enter therapy himself, to help him and them to learn to live with what had happened inside: a total collapse into sadism and degradation. This much I already knew. What I did not know was that there was follow-up research, studying the extensive videotapes and audio recordings from inside the mock jail and interviewing the subjects, to determine exactly what went wrong. That Zimbardo spent the next several years as the leading expert on socially coerced evil. That in the process of that decades-long career he has interviewed everybody from actual prison guards to Brazilian anti-communist death squad members to study the process by which people who know that brutalizing people is wrong, who know that sexual sadism and perversion towards unwilling victims is wrong, who know that torturing people and then murdering them is wrong, do so anyway. And contrary to what most of us would like to think, it's not because they're "bad apples." On the contrary, he found out that actual "bad apples," people with a predisposition towards evil behavior, suck at it and don't go very far in any kind of institutionally evil setting. They lack the ability to get along with other evil people or to obey even evil orders. He has spent a career documenting the major factors that lead to evil: anonymity for the evil actors, depersonalization of the victims, and a constructed perception that there will be no consequences for evil behavior. He and other social psychologists working in the field of evil have demonstrated, from field research and experimental results, how little it takes, that as few as two institutional changes can produce horrifically evil behavior: any kind of uniform or appearance change so that the person acting sees someone unfamiliar when they look into the mirror, and even the mildest disparagement by (ideally mostly absent thereafter) supervisors of the potential victims or any other social mechanism reinforcing a sense of superiority over the victims. He also found other contributing factors, like the relationship between evil and boredom and the statistical correlation between evil behavior and the 3rd shift. It's all fascinating stuff, and has more implications than a cat has hair.

But that's not the source of my cognitive distress. In the follow-up research to the Stanford Prison Experiment, they were able to identify two classes of guards: the actively evil and the passive. The clear majority of the twelve simulated guards became bad actors, employing substantial creativity in finding ways to abuse and degrade the simulated prisoners. But the more they did so, the sloppier their actual guard work became. The minority of the simulated guards who did not actively engage in abuse of prisoners, however, became even more conscientious in the performance of their administrative duties. In Zimbardo's analysis, the experiment would have broken down even earlier, before the worst degradations could happen, if it were not for the enabling function of those who tried to lead by example while "going along to get along" as the popular phrase goes. It was the passively evil who made it possible for the actively evil to engage in evil. And while you're digesting that, consider this finding from the "You Can't Be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel" article. Abu Ghraib differed from the Stanford Prison Experiment in one important way: in the Stanford Prison Experiment, none of the simulated guards spoke up to him, as the simulated prison administrator, about the abuses of the other guards. At Abu Ghraib, one did.
"A reserve specialist, a low-level guy, saw these pictures on a CD that his buddy gave him. He immediately recognized that this was immoral and wrong for Americans to ever do. At first he slipped the CD containing the images under the door of a superior officer. And then, interestingly, the next day he owned up to it. He said, 'I was the one who put it there. I think this is wrong. You should take some action.' I talked to some military people who say that it took enormous internal fortitude to do that, because as an army reservist in the military police in that setting, you are the lowest form of animal life in the military. It's only because he personally showed the pictures that they couldn't disown the fact that the abuse was happening, although they tried.

"The paradox is that he's an incredible hero who is now in hiding. He's under protective custody. Soldiers in his own battalion say he disgraced them. Apparently there are death threats against him. But this whistle-blower's deed stopped the abuse. There's no question that it would have gone on. It's only because there is graphic visual evidence of how horrible these deeds are that the abuse stopped and led to more than a half dozen investigations. Again, here is somebody who fascinates me, because he is the rare person we would all like to imagine that we would be.

"We like to think we're good, and down deep we'd all like to say, 'I would be the heroic one. I would be the one who would blow the whistle.' The limit of the situationist approach comes when we see these heroes, because it appears that somehow they have something in them that the majority doesn't. We don't know what that special quality is. Certainly it's something we want to study. We want to be able to identify it so we can nurture it and teach it to our children and to others in our society."
And that is the source of my cognitive distress.

I have a handful of friends who tell me on a regular basis that I am not just an occasionally witty, intermittently helpful, and routinely hospitable guy with some serious personal problems; they tell me that I am literally a hero. And I have always, always, always hand-waved that as hyperbole. I told them that they set their standards for "hero" way too low, that the level of "heroism" I have ever engaged in is pretty trivial stuff that almost anybody would do, that the human race is better than these friends give it credit for or civilization could never have arisen. But one thing that I have always known about myself is that I am an asshole. And what I mean by that is that I'm a guy who's willing to be however unpopular it makes me in order to say something that I think is true and important. I've always considered this to be something of a character flaw. It's certainly been treated as a character flaw by roughly half the people I've ever known, including at least half of the bosses I've ever had and at least half of my co-workers. And outside the workplace, such as when I used to be Wiccan and I discovered routine Wiccan slander of Thelemites back in the early 1980s and during the widespread Wiccan cooperation with the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax and resulting moral panic, I paid a pretty hefty social price for being willing to stand up for the oppressed and to tell the oppressors that what they were doing and saying was wrong. I never thought of my willingness to pay that price as a form of heroism. I thought of it as a form of insensitivity towards the feelings of others.

But you know, here's a funny ongoing trivial example, and one that I think my friends may be talking about when they call me heroic. You may know that, long before I even realized that I was marked by Dionysus for his service, I thought of myself as having a super-power: a mobile "permission" field. If there's something that you'd like to say, like to think, like to do, and you've never had the courage to do so, my presence tends to lend that courage. I've long been vaguely proud of being as powerful a disinhibitor as alcohol but with fewer side effects. But it never occurred to me to ask why it's safe to be disinhibited around me, so much safer than it is in so many other settings? And not just around me, but around some other people I've known in my life who have the odd history of just by being there making it safer for people to drop their inhibitions, and whose absence results in total social breakdown as things go Too Far. And after reading a ton of Zimbardo today (but not nearly as much as I want to), I wonder if all I've had to do to make it safe to go totally nucking futs at the "Infamous Brad Parties" or at various social events I was at was that it never occurs to me until afterwards to fear any social ostracism or disapproval that might come from telling someone, politely and quietly and in as friendly a way as I know but in a firm tone of voice that brooks no contradiction, "Dude, knock it off."

If that's all it takes to be a hero, then I guess I'm heroic. And I'm very powerfully uncomfortable with that idea. I'm not sure I want to live on a planet whose dominant species is so cowardly that they're unwilling to risk even mild social disapproval from those in the immediate area around them for standing up for something that everybody in the room actually believes. In a world that cowardly, I don't know how safe I feel. I was much more comfortable thinking that I could count on it. And finding myself less confident that that level of "courage" is routine is making me very, very uncomfortable.