Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Obedience, Conformity and Evil

Over the past few weeks, we watched a video on the power of the social situation which featured snippets from some of the more infamous social-psychology experiments done in the 20th century.

The video explored discussions of Kurt Lewen's "experiential learning", Solomon Asch's "conformity experiments", Stanley Milgram's "shock/conformity experiments", and Philip Zimbardo's "Stanford prison experiment."

You'll remember that the motivating drive for these researchers, particularly Lewen and Asch, was to understand how Nazi Germany was able to turn so many of its seemingly "ordinary citizens" into willing participants in the genocide and Holocaust of the "Final Solution." One of the points Zimbardo makes in the video is that, "more crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than in the name of rebellion" throughout history.

That's why this newest online slide show at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is so startling. Pictures of ordinary looking SS men and women in their "down time" between shifts at the concentration camps. Roger Cohen puts it a bit more harshly:

"In thinking about the Holocaust, we have grown accustomed to images of the Nazis’ victims: shadowy naked figures on the edge of ditches about to be dispatched by the SS-Einsatzgruppen; huddled wide-eyed children; skeletal human simulacra; piles of bones. Getting the perpetrators in focus is harder.

"But here, revealed by these newly discovered photographs, are the German murderers in all their dumb humanity, flirting and joking and lighting Christmas trees, as if what awaited them after the frolicking were just the bus to some dull job in a dental office rather than the supervision of Auschwitz’s industrialized killing machine."

The disconnect (or dissociation) in the pictures is "illusion-stripping" to use Cohen's phraseology. This is how the camp guards and executioners behaved and lived while not "on the job" at Auschwitz and other similar camps.

It essentially proves in pictures what these social-psychologists proved in the laboratory decades ago: that the power of the social situation can compel men and women to acts of both good and evil. And that the evil in this case was of a magnitude no one thought possible.

Click here
to go directly to the slide show.

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