“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. [. . .] None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.” Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, 1986.
Truth is a shape-shifting commodity and there are multiple truths about everything, depending on one’s point of view. As the old saying goes, where you stand on an issue usually depends on where you sit. That’s one reason why democracy’s so dangerous. People who sit still in one space usually see only a single truth regardless of the facts that are thrown at them.
In 1967 a high school history class in California started an experiment to study the rise of Nazism. The teacher, Ron Jones, organized the experiment because his students could not conceive how intelligent, well-educated people in Germany could have blindly followed a demagogue like Hitler. The process was simple. The teacher imposed minor authoritarian controls that were agreed upon with the students. Sitting postures were regulated and drills regularly carried out where they would have to be sitting correctly within five seconds. The rules were progressively tightened. The teacher had to be formally addressed as Mr. Jones every time they spoke to him. On the second day, more formalities were introduced, and a motto had to be repeatedly chanted by pairs of students. On the third day a salute was developed. It involved bringing the right hand to cup the right shoulder. Students were ordered to use this salute with one another whenever they met, even outside class. Outsiders were no longer allowed to enter the classroom, unless they were introduced by a member and agreed to salute with the “wave” salute. By the fourth day, bullying began. The symptoms became so worrying that Jones decided to break it off on the fifth day, Friday. By this time, the students had become so self-identified with the masquerade that they were emotionally devastated when Ron Jones made the announcement to end the experiment. See the link here for a description of the experiment in Ron Jones’ own words, written in 1972.
Ron Jones’ Third Wave experiment was followed by the week-long Standford Prison Experiment in 1971. The results of this experiment were, if anything, even more horrendous and you can read a Wikipedia description here. As in the school experiment, with very few exceptions, all students complied to create coercive prison conditions with increasing enthusiasm. Their ingrained sense of ethics seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to their enthusiasm, i.e. the more enthusiastic they became about the experiment, the less they seemed to care about the ethicality of their actions. They quickly lost their moral compass.
Reading news reports about Donald Trump’s increasingly outrageous statements and the support that he still seems to have among the electorate, it seems to this observer that the US has embarked on a dangerous trajectory that eerily resembles the shenanigans of the Third Wave. The original Third Wave experiment ended in the classroom. This one could end with a man with no moral compass in command of the world’s largest military. This has repercussions far beyond the US electorate.
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