Monthly Archives: April 2016

Milgram Experiments Proving Timeless

Anyone who has studied psychology is very likely familiar with the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale University during the 1960s.  Students were assigned to be teachers to a learner in a different room.  The “teacher” read words for the learner to repeat as part of a memory exercise, but the teacher could administer an electric shock to the learner for a mistake.

At a supervisor’s urging, many teachers (65%) increased the voltage to dangerous levels, despite the learner’s apparent screams and unconsciousness.  Only some teachers protested and stopped the experiment early.  It was not until after the fact that the teachers were told that the learner was acting and not actually being shocked.

The experiment has been replicated in similar forms ever since, but the conclusion holds up: under pressure or under an authority’s instruction, many otherwise normal people are capable of harm and evil to fellow human beings.  To put in the context of the 21st century: Nazi soldiers were us in a perfect storm of situation.

So how does this apply to our daily lives?

Saying or thinking, “I would never say/do (whatever someone perceived to be inferior is doing) is not a guarantee that you would not–especially in similar circumstances.  And regardless of circumstance, assuming someone thinks as you, values what you value, and would do what you would do is one of the prime sources of human misery.

Also, just because some one appears to be heartless or devoid of feeling, does not mean it is not in there.  If anything, the lack of demonstrable proof indicates it is deeper and more embedded, with no outlet yet.

Many world religions and Western democratic governments uphold the equality all humans–that no one individual can be better than any other.  Operationally, this rarely holds in defined areas and is only true on a macro, infinite, and academic plane: in work, someone must be perceived and designated as better for a job than other candidates, we pull out friends and spouses from the general population based on their narrow fit to our arbitrary specifications, we get to choose which businesses to patronize and goods to buy and cities to live in based on their relative adherence to our unique preferences.

Reconciling the fact that we are all equal, and that a number of us are capable of horrific things, and therefore we are all capable of horrific (or great) things, is a mystery still lacking a satisfying conclusion.  Neither religion nor psychology has yet been able to shut down the debate.  If we accept the premise that all men are created equal, then we must accept that we are all a couple turns away from being torturers.  Filling in the line in between those dots is still work ahead for most of us.


The Fellowship of Trash

“There are people doing work to sanitize our surroundings for us, who are caring for our health and happiness, and many of us don’t even know where our waste goes,” notes author Joshua Reno, of Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill.

Not only does our society largely fail to recognize the importance and contributions of these servers, but we determine their importance and geographical placement in a highly political manner.

“Because there are very few, very big landfills and many communities who depend on them, that means that some people and places bear a disproportionate burden. Rural communities, in general, bear this burden, and some states, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia, import a lot of waste on behalf of others… rural places with a small tax base and less political organization are more likely to end up with a big waste site in their backyard. As a result, most waste sites end up located near communities of color and poorer people. So even though we have so much space in this country, compared to others, we still end up exposing disadvantaged and minority groups to everyone else’s waste.”

“Landfills are not merely dumps, where you just leave stuff to decay in the open air. They carefully spread out, compact, and bury wastes of different kinds—sludge from sewers, ash from incinerators, yard waste and building material from residences—and do so to make sure that nothing escapes beyond the landfill boundary.  But since they are difficult to contain and control, this tends to happen, which is why you need laborers working for little money, picking up paper, repairing gas and leachate lines, paving roads, and so on. This is what I did for nine months, and until I did it, I didn’t appreciate how intricate an activity landfilling is,” the author spoke of his firsthand experiment.

Why so much trash these days?  Our society’s appetite for standardization is partly to blame.  Not only does it create waste out of any defective item, it causes the addition of packaging.

“Reproducible sameness means we want commodities to be exactly the same as previous ones we’ve bought and as future ones we might buy. The rise of packaging can be explained as a result of this commitment to sameness.”

It’s no secret that most of humanity has an antipathy toward change.  But, there are costs and unpleasantries associated with that.  Yet for now, we have collectively decided it is all worth it.


Serial’s Chronicling of the Bowe Bergdahl Case

The podcast Seriala branch off of NPR’s This American Life  which consistently ranks among the top of all podcasts–focused its just-wrapped second season on Bowe Bergdahl.

Bowe is a young American Army soldier who deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009.  He was soon captured by the Taliban and remained their prisoner for five years, all while his brothers in arms performed dangerous and fatal recovery efforts.  The US government had to rescue him by trading five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in 2014.

Six men’s deaths are linked to Bergdahl and the recovery missions for him–but, no Army operations are that clean-cut; many objectives were combined at once, and so it is harder to prove that these men would not have been killed if it were not for Bergdahl.  The fact that the deceased were only out doing what they were doing to look for him when killed may not be true, because all deaths took place after the dedicated search period and were combined with other missions, details of which are only known in a cascading fashion by rank. Also, many documents are still being held by the military in advance of Bergdahl’s court martial scheduled for August 2016.

As for the Taliban prisoners we released?  Many believe in evidence that they were soon to be released anyway.  According to Serial, since their Taliban ties are old and stale, no one can say what roles they will have for radical Islam beside symbolic ones.  Yet, this was one of several examples of Serial downplaying an angle seemingly in an effort to prevent hysteria, despite the fact that these men sare experienced and dangerous insurgents who have not displayed any outward signs of remorse or renouncement.  Sometimes, the podcast stretches itself too wide in its moral relativism.

In the second season that began in December, Serial continues its style of journalism that is accessible and interesting to lay people.  These episodes are more about personalities and psychology than about maps and weapons, just like Season One had more to do with the whys than the whats and hows of the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and her ex boyfriend’s questionable conviction.  In neither season is the case at hand “solved,” in that a murky issue is studied by journalists to make a judgement on the subject’s guilt or innocence.  The listener is deliberately drawn into the gray, and then left there.  If a lack of resolution in entertainment is frustrating for you, give it a pass.  But, if you appreciate the complexities of human motivations and memory, then we highly recommend it.


Still from one of Bergdahl’s “proof of life” videos.