November 26th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

American Fashion and the Social Construction of Evil

So far as I can tell from the literature searches, Zimbardo's most influential written work is the chapter he wrote for Arthur Miller's textbook, The Social Psychology of Good and Evil. That chapter, "A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil" is available as a PDF on Zimbardo's website, and it fascinates me so much that I'm fighting the urge to go back to school, pick up a second BA in Psych, and try to get a research fellowship doing post-grad work in social psychology, ideally under Dr. Zimbardo.

And one of the follow-up questions I'd love to ask relates to one of my own lifetime observations, and that is that over the course of the 1980s, American white collar workplace ethics went directly to Hell. As in many of the environments that Zimbardo studies, it pretty much has to be something in that environment, because hardly anybody escaped. People with enough employment tenure to remember times where teams were more likely to cooperate than stab each other in the bank turned into amoral sociopaths, willing to stab anybody in the back, their employer and their co-workers alike, in vicious competition to get a 0.5% higher raise than the other guy. This has bugged me my whole working life.

And now I read in Zimbardo that most cultures, when they want to transform a young person into a killing machine, make enough of a modification to that young warrior's appearance, both clothes and face, that if he looks at himself in the mirror, he doesn't recognize the person he sees. In Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the contributing factors to the sadism and perversion seems to have been that not only were the simulated prison guards in uniform so they all looked alike, they were given mirrored sunglasses to hide much of their faces while working. In another study, there was shown to be a statistical correlation between the extent of appearance modification during training in soldiers and the number of atrocities attributed to that society's soldiers. There are other related studies, see the article cited above for references.

And here's something I've been thinking about: prior to the late 1970s, almost every white collar worker in America dressed the same at home as he did at work. The non-management employees wore dress slacks, a shirt, and a tie to work, and they wore it at home, and had a matching jacket for fancy occasions and for fall and winter. The management employees wore their suits to work, and they wore them at home, taking off the jacket only if they were off work and it got too hot, and not even always then. But then came the late 1950s and 1960s fad, by middle class and upper middle class hippies, of emulating the dress of Socialist and Communist radicals. And those radicals intentionally wore a variation on the standard working class uniform of the time, Navy-surplus denim pants and a t-shirt, long-sleeved t-shirt, or sweatshirt based on weather. The radicals did it as a way of faking a shared identity with the proletariat; the hippies made it a national fashion as a way of rebelling against their despised GI Generation and Silent Generation parents. And ever since then, for so long that I for one am very bored with and sick of it, virtually everybody in America wears that proletarian uniform almost all the time ...

But not at work. By the late 1970s, offices were beginning to have to give new employees a workplace dress code, and such dress codes became ubiquitous over the course of the 1980s. For whatever cultural reasons, businesses still want their employees to dress the way everybody dressed in the 1940s and 1950s while they're at work. The hippies fought this, and many offices compromised on a "dress casual" uniform of khakis or dressy cotton slacks (Dockers), dress loafers, and the same shirt that would have been worn with a tie in the old uniform, tie encouraged by not required. Still, the fact remains: whether your office requires business dress or business casual dress, almost everybody wears a uniform to work now, and takes it off when they go home.

Is that how so many of them can live with the way they treat their co-workers, subordinates, employer, and customers? For the same reason that Brazilian death squads wear insignia-less faux military uniforms and opaque or mirrored sunglasses while rounding up and murdering orphans in the favelas? Because when they see themselves in the bathroom mirror at home and some fragment of a surviving conscience asks them, "How could you do that?," the rest of their brain answers, "I didn't. It was that other person, the one who looks nothing like me, who did it"?