06 February 2007

The untouchable subject

A friend of mine told me that some time ago there was a students' club called The Carnivores, or something along those lines, I can't remember exactly what the name was. Anyway, this club was a kind of jab at PETA and the whole vegetarianism thing. They signed up to put up signs for their club just like the other students' clubs in the area, and chose to put up a sign with a picture of Adolf Hitler and the text to the effect of "Hitler was a vegetarian. Join the carnivores." Again, I don't remember the exact wording, but that's pretty close, I think. The point they were making was that vegetarianism, while nice and dandy if you're into that, does not have any superior moral value to it. It's a different lifestyle, not necessarily a better one. Not surprisingly, this sign got a lot of people pissed off. Now, why is that?

Firstly, the vegetarians didn't particularly like being associated with Hitler in any way, the jewish students were pissed because... well, you know. It's Hitler. This shouldn't need much of an explanation if you paid any attention at all in school. And a whole bunch of other people were pissed off because they thought the whole idea was just ridiculously insensitive and stupid. They do have a point, it was probably not the smartest idea to put up a picture of this particular fellow and compare him to the "opposition" team. It's bound to piss some people off. But if you think about it... Why is that?

Hitler has become one of those 'untouchable' things. In any debate, as soon as one side starts comparing things to Hitler, they're pretty much done for. They might as well hand over their heads on a silver platter. He has become a concept, more than just a psychotic fuckhead who convinced thousands of people to participate in absolutely insane plans. And a concept can't be touched, especially if it's an evil concept. Hitler has in a way become the personification, the very idea of everything that is evil and wrong with mankind. He has become an idea so horrendous that people would never think of using his name as an insult even if they were more pissed off than they've ever been before, because it would just be over the top.

"Shut up, you fuckin' Hitler!"

See? It just doesn't work. People would just walk away in disgust, enemies and friends alike. You just can't call someone a "Hitler" unless that person happens to be guilty of murdering about six million people. But you also can't compare Hitler to anything good either. He's just too evil to be good in any conceivable way. Saying something like "You know, Hitler was a pretty ingenious dude" would probably get you stamped as a neo-nazi and maybe even punched in the face, depending on where you said that. People can no longer see him as a man, because he's become this gargantuan monster that everybody loves to hate. But put that aside for a moment. Hitler really was a pretty smart dude. Absolutely insane and despicable beyond description, of course, but let's admit it: He was pretty good at what he did.

Have you ever looked up any of Hitler's original artwork? They're easily found online. You probably know that he was an art student way before any of the politics started happening. He applied to an art school in Vienna and got rejected. But have a look at the paintings, he was really a pretty decent painter. Lots of landscapes and very detailed paintings of architecture. Not bad at all.

Then things started going badly, he was rejected from art school, his mother died, he spent five years bumming around in Vienna, somehow convinced himself that everything was because of the jews, and things just went to hell from there and people started dying.

Here's an interesting thing. Have you ever thought to yourself: Where did Hitler find so many willing assistants to help him out with his evil plans? Surely the average person doesn't just naturally agree with something like the absolute necessity of killing six million people in order to get the country on the right keel again? The fuckers who worked at the camps, the military, they must have all been insane, right? Maybe the Germans were just a fucked up, evil kind of people back then? No, of course they weren't. This is where things start getting interesting.

Hitler was an incredibly carismatic leader. He was the kind of guy who could convice penguins that fish is bad for you, or sell ice to the inuits for twice the price of gold. When he talked, people just listened, because he was soooo good at talking. That is one part of it.
But what about the people helping him kill all those people? Did they realize what they were doing? Were they insane? That's the other part. They weren't. They did what they were told to do. It sounds like the lamest excuse ever, but this is the really interesting part.

In 1961-62 a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments at Yale University on the topic of behavioural psychology and obedience. The setup was this:

They recruited test subjects through newspaper ads and mail, and got a random assortment of people between 20 and 50 years old and with different backgrounds and educational levels. These people would be paid $4.50 whether they completed the task or not. They were then told that they would participate in an experiment on the effects of punishment on learning.

The experimenter was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a technician's coat, and the "victim" was played by an accountant trained to act for the role, but the test subjects didn't know that these were just actors. The "victim" and the test subject were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. In one version of the experiment, the victim made sure to mention to the subject that he had a heart condition.

The test subject was given a 45-volt electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The subject was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the "victim". The subject began by reading the list of word pairs to the victim. If the victim got it right, the subject would read the next pair of words. If he got it wrong, he received an electric shock. With every wrong answer, the voltage of the shock would go up, gradually increasing up to fatal levels. After a few shocks, the "victim" would start banging the wall, begging for mercy, complaining about his heart condition, etc. and finally go completely silent, as if dead.

At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment and check on the victim. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. A few subjects began to laugh nervously or exhibit other signs of extreme stress once they heard the screams of pain coming from the victim.

If at any time the subject indicated his desire to halt the experiment, he was given a succession of verbal prods by the experimenter, in this order:

  1. Please continue.
  2. The experiment requires that you continue.
  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted. Otherwise, it was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession.

Text copied from wikipedia and from the Stanley Milgram website, edited and shortened to fit this blog.

The theory was that only an average of about 1,2 % of people, the sadistic ones, would complete the experiment and actually keep pushing the button until the "victim" was dead. The actual result turned out to be quite shocking. An average of 65 % of all the test subjects delivered the final and fatal 450 volt shock to the "victim". The experiment has since then been repeated several times in different variations and settings, and the result remains constant in all of them. Between 61 and 68 percent of people will kill a person simply because an authority figure in a white lab coat tells them it's necessary. There was no difference between men and women, nationality or other parameters. The average remained around 65 % in all similar experiments conducted.

Pretty freaky, huh? I bet you're thinking: "I could never do such a thing, I would have refused to complete the experiement."

Would you really? Deep down inside, would you really have refused? An average of about 65 % of you would have continued pushing that button. Kinda hard to swallow, isn't it?
It's very, very hard to refuse when an authority figure we have faith in convinces us that it is absolutely necessary that we continue doing what we're doing.

So to tie up this post: No. The Germans were no more retarded fuckers than you and I are. Hitler actually managed to make a whole lot of things better for lots of people in Germany, while making things a lot worse for others. But the ones that were doing better had no reason to doubt that he was a good guy. They didn't know people were dying by the scores at some desolate camp somewhere. They thought things were getting better. So they believed him. They were victims of a very, very convincing and charismatic authority figure who in the end fucked them over so hard not even their great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will forget about it.

Let's make sure no authority figure ever fools anyone like that ever again, mmkay?