Saturday, June 25, 2011

Adults and Authority

Milgram shock machine

     Recently I was on a neighborhood campout with many neighborhood teenagers and a few adult leaders. Everybody's stuff was piled into one trailer. When we were setting up camp I looked in the trailer for my sleeping bag. I didn't find it, but there was another dark blue sleeping bag in a black case, just like mine. I began asking around to see if anybody had taken mine by mistake. I looked in the leaders' tent and found a dark blue sleeping bag rolled out with a black case not far from it. I took it and left the other one in its place.
    A few hours later, one of the leaders came into the tent I shared with several other girls. She was holding the sleeping bag and said, "Eliza, this is yours."
     "No it isn't. That one has a yellow drawstring cord one the case. Mine doesn't."
     We argued for a little while. At first, she has plausible counterarguments such as, "I watched my husband pack that." But before long, her only argument was "Because, that's my sleeping bag. Because, that's my sleeping bag."
     My whole tent was listening. "Pearl", a girl who has lived in my neighborhood for as long as I can remember, gone to the same church, and sat next to me in CTE last year, took the leader's side. "Eliza," she said, "That's your sleeping bag." Other girls I'd known for several years agreed with her.
     I don't really blame Pearl, or any of the other girls. The leader had two qualities going for her: she was an adult with authority. Almost anyone will take the word of an adult over that of a teenager. Besides, people are naturally submissive in the face of authority. A psychologist named Stanley Milgram proved this in an interesting experiment. The purpose of his experiment was to study authority but was camoflauged as a teaching experiment.
     A volunteer was instructed by a person in a white coat to ask a student several questions. If the student answered incorrectly, they were supposed to shock them. In reality, the "student" was in on the experiment and felt no pain. They put on a good show, though-crying out, begging them to stop, even faking heart attacks. The white coated officials ordered the volunteers to continue. Did they? In most cases, yes. After all, these were ordinary, good people. Good people don't rebel against authority. Teenagers rebel against authority.
     This experiment wasn't confined to a specific group of people. It was preformed in America, Australia, Germany, and Italy among other places. Both male and female subjects were used. Most of them must have been good, obedient people. They somehow managed to convince themselves that the "students" deserved cruelty, or that they were not responsible. Prejudice isn't that different from electric shocks. As long as you can convince yourself it's okay, you'll go along with it without protest.
     In case you're wondering, I didn't trade sleeping bags with the leader. The one I used disappeared when we broke camp. I decided that since she'd made such a fuss, she could have it. Maybe there were three similar sleeping bags and we both were right, but somebody else had taken the wrong one. I took home the one she'd called mine and my parents verified that it wasn't ours. I haven't gotten mine back yet.

1 comment:

  1. Frustrating. Why do some people always think they're right? This happens to adults too.