Oldspeak


Organized Evil: Torture in the Middle Ages, Stanley Milgram's Obedience Experiments, and the Power of Authority Over Conscience



By David McNair
February 03, 2003

Head Crusher, Venetian, 1500-1700. Still used as an interogation device in the world today.

In the early 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment on human obedience at Yale University. Volunteer subjects were asked to participate in a "memory study" and told that it was concerned with "the effects of punishment on learning." Each volunteer, referred to as a "teacher," was introduced to an "experimenter," who would oversee the experiment, and a "learner," who was strapped into a kind of electric chair while the volunteer sat behind a panel of switches and voltage meters, one of which was marked "Danger: severe shock." The learners were actors, and whenever the experimenter commanded the teacher to administer an electric shock, increasing the voltage level based on the frequency of wrong answers, the actors pretended to suffer. Although many of the teachers were clearly disturbed by the effects of the experiment, they continued to obey the experimenter. In fact, 26 out of the 40 teachers administered the shocks up to the maximum level, even after the actors had feigned losing consciousness. In further experiments, in which Milgram used a wide variety of subjects with different economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds, the results were the same. A majority of people continued to obey authority despite their misgivings. Among the aberrations in this experiment, a few are quite interesting. Of course, there were those few who resisted authority, and whose actions we would hope would be our own, including a man who had experienced the German occupation in the Netherlands during World War II and who finally refused the experimenter, saying, "I came here of my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that—I can’t continue." But most of the aberrations were disturbing. One teacher, clearly troubled by what he was doing, said to the controller after the learner appeared to pass out, "Sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I think you should look in on him." Another man, described as highly intelligent and sophisticated, could not control his laughter each time he administered a shock. A year later, in a questionnaire, he said, "What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value, i.e., don't hurt someone who is helpless and not hurting you. As my wife said, 'You can call yourself Eichmann,' I hope I deal more effectively with any future conflicts of values I encounter."

The "Iron Maiden" of Nuremberg, 15th Century.

In 1983, an exhibition of torture instruments from the Middle-Ages and the industrial era opened in Florence, Italy. The exhibit, called "Inquisition," was one of the first attempts to display these horrible instruments of human torture, and presented an appalling and profoundly disturbing story of human cruelty throughout the ages. The exhibit became internationally famous almost overnight, and by the time it closed in Barcelona, Spain, in 1986, the gruesome images of these devices were familiar to millions around the world. In addition, the exhibit has been revived and is currently on display at the San Diego Museum of Man, entitled Inquisition: Torture and Intolerance. "While its contents are horrifying, the exhibit offers an important indictment against torture and tyranny," says Museum Director Douglas Sharon. "And its overall purpose is to convey a powerful message against any kind of inhuman treatment." The exhibit is supported by such important organizations as Amnesty International and the Mexican Academy of Human Rights. You can also visit the permanent exhibit online at the Historical Torture Museum.


"But one of the real surprises of Milgram’s experiments is that it does not point toward a sadistic desire to control others, like you might think, but rather toward an inability to resist authority."


The exhibit has also been preserved in a bilingually published book called Inquisition, from which the images that accompany this article were taken. The photographs of these devices, along with antique engravings of the spectacles of their use, present a profound moral and spiritual dilemma to those of us who like to believe that love and faith and gentleness are stronger than hatred and evil and death. In trying to understand why people did this to one another, and continue to do so, we are faced with some uncomfortable truths about human nature. As Milgram’s experiments reveal, people have a capacity to distance themselves from the sufferings of others, as well as a darker capacity to justify such cruelty or even delight in it, so long as it is sanctioned by some legitimate authority, not a direct result of our actions, or seems to serve a higher purpose.

Milgram’s experiment came as a shock to many so-called enlightened people, who considered torture unjustifiable and a crime against humanity—those who considered, for example, the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews unthinkable. In fact, before Milgram conducted his famous experiments, he asked psychiatrists, college sophomores, middle-class adults, graduate students, and faculty in the behavioral sciences to predict the outcomes. "With remarkable similarity," Milgram writes in The Perils of Obedience, an article about his experiments that appeared in a 1974 issue of Harper’s Magazine, "…they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter. These predictions were unequivocally wrong."

Amsterdam, about 1700. The burning of witches and heretics during the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions.

In contemplating the torture devices in Inquisition, or in contemplating the continued existence of torture in the world today, in which Amnesty International says it has "received reports of torture and ill-treatment inflicted by state agents in over 150 countries since 1997," and in which the United States has begun to sanction the torture of terror suspects to obtain information (See Washington Post article "U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations"), it is hard not to return to Milgram’s experiments and the realization that the roots of torture and man’s inhumanity to man are buried deep in the human psyche. (Of course, and I digress, in contemplating the devices in Inquisition, it is impossible not to give Freud the nod here and ignore the sexual nature of torture with its obvious links to sado-masochism and the pursuit of pleasure through pain. But the more you really think about what torture is, and how it has been used through the ages and in the present, a fascination with its sexual appropriation seems to diminish, reduced to a childish farce indulged in by societies that are distanced from any state-sponsored torture.) But one of the real surprises of Milgram’s experiments is that it does not point toward a sadistic desire to control others, like you might think, but rather toward an inability to resist authority. One of the fundamental lessons of Milgram’s study, he writes, was that:

"…ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

People choose not to resist authority in interesting ways as well. Milgram cites one teacher, described as a rough-hewn 37-year-old welder, who performed his task with the loyalty of a soldier, at one point actually forcing a learner’s hand down on the electrode when the actor pretended to recoil from the shock treatments. Other teachers found it easier to administer shocks when they were ordering someone else to physically switch the levers. Many of the teachers were clearly uncomfortable with what they were doing, protesting and fully convinced of the wrongness of their actions, but still unable to "make an open break with authority." Some of these people even began to delude themselves into thinking, as Milgram puts it, that they were "on the side of the angels" by switching the levers gently in the hope of lessoning the suffering of the learner—anything but outright defiance of authority.


"Looking at the antique engravings and illustrations in Inquisition, you notice an almost serene detachment in the faces of the torturers and those witnessing the torture, as if their tortured fellow human beings were merely slabs of meat being sawed, poked, flayed, burned, and spiked."


Now imagine if the consequences of defying authority (no one in Milgram’s experiments were threatened with punishment if they refused to administer the shocks) were being tortured, killed, or having your loved ones harmed. The terrible power that the threat of torture possesses, particularly when it’s randomly and frequently administered, is undeniable. It is what Geroge Orwell’s creation, O’Brien, the state torturer in the novel 1984, calls "a boot stomping on a human face forever."– i.e. the total control and power of state authority over the individual. Given this reality, it’s not hard to imagine how the centuries of torture presented in Inquisition could have persisted. While it’s true that certain political and church leaders, and particularly the administrators of the torture, may have actually enjoyed being the boot stomping on the face of humanity, the large majority of people were simply terrified into submission and compliance.

In the introduction to Brian Innes’ book, The History of Torture, the author tells the story of Paul Teitgen, a hero of the French Resistance who had been tortured by the Germans at Dachau, and later became the Secretary-General in the Algerian government. A communist supporter of the nationalist revolution had been captured planting a bomb in a gasworks factory under Teitgen’s watch and was believed to know where a second bomb was planted. The Chief of Police tried to persuade Teitgen to let him use all the means necessary in interrogating the man, but Teitgen refused, later saying:

"I refused to have him tortured. I trembled the whole afternoon. Finally the bomb did go off. Thank god I was right. Because if you once get into the business of torture, you’re lost…Understand, fear is the basis of it all. All our so-called civilization is covered with a veneer. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French—even the Germans—are not torturers by nature. But when you see the throats of your friends slit, the veneer vanishes."

Fear. That’s the primary feeling you get leafing through the horrible images in Inquisition. The terrible fear of having to imagine it being done to you or someone you know, and the terrible knowledge that human kindness and love can be provisional, vulnerable to the brutal ideologies, theologies, laws, and social conventions that people often live under, vulnerable to a desire for self-preservation, and ultimately corrupted when people put too much faith in their rulers or religious leaders.


"As Milgram’s experiments reveal, people have a capacity to distance themselves from the sufferings of others, as well as a darker capacity to justify such cruelty or even delight in it, so long as it is sanction by some legitimate authority, not a direct result of our actions, or seems to serve a higher purpose. "


In the end, Milgram cites Nazi war criminal Eichmann and the army of bureaucrats who operated the German concentration camps in World War II as models of "socially organized evil in modern society," reminding us that Eichmann himself was more of a paper pusher than a sadistic monster, and that he was sickened when he toured the concentration camps. And all down the line of command there were simple ways for individuals to avoid considering themselves directly responsibility for their actions. Here, Milgram blames this kind of evil on a form of society in which people perform very specialized jobs, feel like mere cogs in a wheel, and are therefore disconnected from the larger meaning of their actions. "Thus," Milgram writes, "There is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act."

The Interogation Chair, 17th Century.

But, of course, this "fragmentation" is nothing new. Looking at the antique engravings and illustrations in Inquisition, you notice an almost serene detachment in the faces of the torturers and those witnessing the torture, as if their tortured fellow human beings were merely slabs of meat being sawed, poked, flayed, burned, and spiked. People stand idly, looking somewhat bored, while someone hangs naked from a poll getting his flesh ripped. A studious looking man takes notes while a woman receives water torture. Three men play cards while a man hangs from the ceiling by one arm with heavy weights tied to his ankles. One man seems to smirk while he helps saw a man in half. Remove the torture victims from these engravings and illustrations and you’re left with portraits of everyday life in the Middle Ages—people cooking over a fire, tradesmen building something, crowds gathered at a fair or outdoor market, students taking notes. Where, one is finally compelled to ask, is the human connection between the victims and those tormenting or watching them?

In the hope of ending on a somewhat positive note, its worth noting Milgrim’s observations on the variations that would cause the experimenters to loose their power over the teachers. Think of it as a strategy for fighting organized evil:

The experimenter's physical presence has a marked impact on his authority—As cited earlier, obedience dropped off sharply when orders were given by telephone. The experimenter could often induce a disobedient subject to go on by returning to the laboratory.

Conflicting authority severely paralyzes actions—When two experimenters of equal status, both seated at the command desk, gave incompatible orders, no shocks were delivered past the point of their disagreement.

The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority—In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.

DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.