Sunday, December 28, 2008

Society and human behavior

I am a vegetarian. I also happen to be raised a vegetarian. Up until now, I have maintained a certain distaste and even disgust for the sight and smell of meat. But I have also come to realize that vegetarianism is significant from an ethical point of view too. My primary concern here is animal welfare since there is ample evidence to believe that sentient beings are put through some of the most horrifying conditions one can imagine before being slaughtered.

I am often shocked by how people don't seem to care too much about this at all. How is it possible they don't realize the inhuman treatment that animals are subjected to for the trivial benefit of satisfying their palate? I find their flippant attitude inexplicable, especially so when is many cultures, cruelty to dogs would be condemned in the sharpest way possible (and can even be punishable). However, I am not going to be discussing the ethics of vegetarianism here, even though I have several opinions on the issue. Maybe, I can post it sometime later. Besides, there other sites that discuss this including Wikipedia. No, here I am going to use this fact as a starting point to launch into a more general argument that, when a certain behavior is acceptable in society, however despicable it may be, there will be many people who would not refrain from indulging in the same.

I was completely shocked when I learned about how the Red Army marched into Germany when the tide of the war swung in the favor of the Allies, and then raped and molested all the women they could find. They ravaged and destroyed the towns and did not even spare some of the 'liberated' death camp prisoners. I was equally taken aback when I heard about the anti-Sikh riots in northern India by Hindu extremists in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That rioters just picked on innocent Sikh men, dragged them out of their homes, and brutally attacked and murdered them was something I could not believe. Maybe it was my sheltered childhood, but the fact that normal people were capable of such barbarism went beyond my comprehension of humanity.

Of course, I have grown up now and am aware that these incidents are far from being isolated cases of violent atrocities. War crimes follow virtually instance of a warfare or regional strife, and this has been the situation throughout recorded history. However appalling Abu Graib or Guantanamo Bay may be, it is not particularly unique, even for the US Army (though this is no justification for their continued existence). It is not just horrendous acts perpetrated by armies and other combat groups that are guaranteed presence in all of human history, but so are other forms of injustices and cruelty entrenched in wider society during better times of peace and prosperity.. Slavery, colonialism and imperialism, racism, oppression of women, casteism, trafficking are all examples of human behavior, that viewed from the perspective of modern "civilized" world, appears as wholly deplorable. And yet, they were acceptable at one point. Widespread, almost unopposed acceptability has existed/still exists with regard to the practice of just these same human indignities in societies. Today, in most parts of the Western world, slavery would be perceived as completely abhorrent, but less than 300 years ago, there were several educated, intelligent and otherwise decent human beings who participated in the practice and held various flawed beliefs to justify it. Some of the leading philosophers and thinkers in the generations past have lent their credence to the idea that Africans are fundamentally inferior and hence deserve the treatment they get.

A similar justification was made, based on the ideology of "White Man's burden", for conquering and ruling other nations while impoverishing and depriving them of their resources. Not many in the oppressive community/country back then expressed a tenth of disgust that the majority would now do,looking at the past. How is this possible? Obviously, there is no inherent change in human beings over a few hundred years. There is also no reason to believe that each generation is born with certain unique inherent traits. In other words, if the same child were to be hypothetically transported across time to a different era, the whole outlook that he/she develops would be spectacularly divergent from what it is now. But, if such is the case, would it not be reasonable to argue that this is nothing more than a generalized version of "cultural relativism". Clearly, that is not how people understand it today, otherwise we would be hearing a lot more along the lines of "Who are we to judge what someone did in a different period when public morality was so different?".Much like when we hear a lady is being stoned to death for alleged adultery in Iran, few would take the stand that it is all fair and reasonable from their(Iran's) cultural standpoint. No, we believe, correctly or incorrectly, that these are wrongs and must never happen anywhere or anytime. Once we claim such absolutes in ethical judgments, we need to go back and revise our opinions on why so many participated in and encouraged what was so obviously WRONG. The answer, according to me, is simply that it was acceptable in society then whereas it isn't so anymore now.That is the sad truth of the world we live in:we are capable of doing just about anything so long as it is acceptable in society. So much for peoples' righteous moral outrage! Alter this argument a little and replace society by a group or institution, and we can explain everything from the Holocaust to human-rights violations in North Korea. The group is the one that has authority and power - the men in charge of implementing official policy of torture and abuse.

A microcosm of the same phenomena can be witnessed in the whole ragging issue in colleges across India. Students, barely past their teens, mostly growing up in regular middle-class families and seemingly introverted, somehow get transformed to something quite vicious and sadistic. The abuses inflicted on the freshmen in certain colleges, can take many forms, including repeated beatings and sexual humiliation. It is interesting though that in these cases, those in the vicinity witnessing the initiation ritual, see nothing odd about two people simulating sodomy. This is particularly striking when contrasted with the overall attitude of the broader Indian society when it comes to similar issues. How come those nurtured in a closed environment like this, in less than a year, turned to doing something that is not only in poor taste, but is also outright illegal?
It is equally interesting to note that the same people who were in the thicket of organizing the ragging drill would not have much of courage to do anything even a little daring in an environment where such behavior would not be acceptable. In other words, timid individuals who seem incapable of standing up and being bold can turn into monsters when they know that their actions would be regarded as normal, however disgusting these actions may be in a more standard setting.

My hypothesis was strengthened when I learned about some famous experiments that were carried out to test similar potential possibilities in normal people. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a famous test where participants were supposed to administer electric shocks to a "victim" whenever he/she answered a question wrong. The order to do so was to be provided by a a stern authority figure who sat in the same room as the participant. And with every wrong answer, the voltage was incremented. The results were astonishing -many of the participants triggered shocks greater than 200V and only one participant refused to do so beyond the 300V threshold. 65% of the participants were willing to go up to 450V although many of them expressed reservations and were uncomfortable to do so. Interestingly, this was three months before the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi operative considered to be the architect of the Holocaust. Basically, the experimenters wanted to determine if ordinary Americans were capable of doing what the Nazis had done. (By the way, the analysis of Eichmann's personality is also noteworthy.)

Ten years later, an even more disturbing psychological experiment was carried out. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved selecting a bunch of undergraduate students, randomly assigning them "prisoner" and "guard" roles that they are supposed to enact for a period of 14 days in a real prison. The whole arrangement was setup in a manner that would simulate a real prison environment as accurately as possible: from the baton that the "guards" carried around to the chains tied to the ankles of "prisoners". The lead experimenter Professor Philip Zimbardo was himself playing the prison superintendent. The experiment had to be shut down in 6 days because the whole situation got out of hand very soon. Guards began to beat the prisoners, denied them food, and routinely humiliated them. Some of the prisoners were thrown into solitary confinement. The prisoners are said to have been psychologically traumatized at the end, having undergone serious stress during the progress of the experiment. To be fair, the experiment was criticized by many (though not criticisms are convincing) and the BBC conducted its own Prison Study in 2002 and the results this time were definitely less dramatic than SPE. The difference seems to lie in the fact that in the conditions were less harsh and hostile in the BBC commissioned study than in the SPE. That is not to say it did not have any incident involving tyranny and abuse of power. My own interpretation is that the inferences that can be drawn from all these psychological experiments are in line with my overall opinion of human nature and behavior.

When we go by this hypothesis, we are able to better understand various barbaric events in history and also societal attitudes to and (in some case )participation in various horrors, from mild injustices like denying equal rights to women to applauding brutal Gladiator fights. So long as everyone around feels the same way, it reinforces the idea of normalcy in such behavior and people will engage in them without any compunction. Or, they are unlikely to realize what their actions would be judged harshly in the future or by a society with different norms. Thus every time I hear about some horrible violence somewhere in the world, I am inclined to believe that the perpetrators are living in a place and time where such activities are deemed acceptable . It is a truly disturbing thought indeed.

(i) It is important to remember that most of the experiments that I have described here were not designed to study anything directly related to what I am interested in. Instead, they mostly concerned the willingness of normal people to simply follow instruction in the presence of an authority figure, however much it went against their perception of what is right and what isn't. In their own right, they are quite surprising. The results from the BBC Prison Study are particularly well reasoned out and analyzed. I also do not claim that my conclusions based on these experiments have been obtained in some perfectly-justified purely rational arguments. I just see a strong connection between them and my own hypothesis of human behavior. Also,in no way am I desperate to find evidence-weak or strong- to prove my point. Far from it, I actually wish I could be proved wrong.

(ii)Same goes for various incidents I have highlighted. It is certainly possible that the underlying motivation to commit violent crimes may been have vastly different in these cases.
(iii) Irrespective of the idea you may get away with on reading this, it was by no means written to drive home the imperative for converting to vegetarianism.
I cannot however deny that I feel the same logic applies to the whole issue of vegetarianism though.

1 comment:

Harsh said...

Hi Venkateshan,

I am delghted to read your article. It gave me a new understanding to the problem of ragging which I am fighting through my organisation Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE) . I would be glad if you could read some of the artciles in the research and analysis section.

I liked your observation on acceptibility of certain things depending on place or time which might be completely unacceptable at a different place or time. Two experiments that you have highlighted explains a lot about this. I would be extremely glad if you could please write a small article on ragging for my website.