About a week ago, I revisited an old friend of sorts. I re-read Antigone on a lazy Saturday afternoon, something I haven’t done in years. It was Paul Roche’s translation of Sophocles’ version of the tale, a battered copy, older than I am, picked up in some used book store years ago, with someone else’s notes in the margins and single words underlined here and there throughout, seemingly at random and not by me.
It’s a play I really wish someone would update and turn into a movie. I’ll spare you the plot synopsis, beyond noting that Antigone is both the daughter and half-sister of the Oedipus of Freudian fame, so her family dynamics could probably make the annual Thanksgiving dinner of the most dysfunctional family you’ve ever known seem Norman Rockwellian in comparison.
The central conflict in the play is the debate about whether it is better to obey the tyrant, who has the power to punish one in very unpleasant ways in the here and now, or to remain true to a higher law or moral principles. It’s about the choice between doing what is right and following orders.
When faced with someone in a position of authority giving orders, most people almost reflexively choose what is easy over what is right. It’s rather depressing really.
Certainly, this is the lesson history has taught us. German soldiers were only following orders when they killed millions of innocent people for the simple crime of being Jewish, or communist, or gay, or a member of some other group that a madman had designated a threat to the state. Yes, some of those orders had seemed, well, wrong, but orders were orders, so what else were they to do?
What else, indeed?
Starting around the time of the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, a Yale social psychologist named Stanley Milgram performed a now-legendary series of experiments to assess the general willingness of members of the public to obey authority figures. The results were disturbing, to say the least.
Each volunteer who participated in the study was directed, by a man in a white lab coat with glasses and a clipboard (the scientist), to administer a series of increasingly strong shocks to another “volunteer” (the victim) every time the other person got a wrong answer on a memory task. Both the scientist and the victim were actually actors playing carefully scripted roles. The scientist remained in the room with the volunteer, while the victim went into a different room, where he could be heard but not seen by the volunteer. As the shocks increased in voltage, the volunteer heard sounds of distress from the victim, who also mentioned some sort of “heart condition.” If the volunteer continued to administer the shocks (increasing from a low of 15 volts to a high of 450 volts) long enough, the victim in the next room would eventually fall silent, not responding audibly to either questions or shocks. If the volunteer objected or tried to stop the experiment, he was told the following things, in this order:
- Please continue.
- The experiment requires that you continue.
- It is absolutely essential that you continue.
- You have no other choice, you must go on.
(Prompts courtesy of Wikipedia, which also has a more detailed description of the experiments.) The volunteer was only given permission to stop if he continued to object after the fourth prompt was given.
The idea was to identify the point at which people would say, “No, I won’t do this.”
Before conducting the experiment, Milgram surveyed both his students and his professional colleagues, asking them to predict the percentage of people who would continue all the way to the 450 volt level. Everyone thought that few if any would proceed all the way through the experiment as it was to be staged, with the average being 1.2 percent. (Again, details courtesy of the Wikipedia entry.)
As I noted before, the experiment was being conducted in 1961, near the time of Eichmann’s trial. The trial certainly would have received a fair amount of press coverage at the time, so theoretically, participants should have been somewhat sensitized to the problems that can arise from just following orders. One would think, or hope, that the colleagues and students were accurate in their predictions, that most of the participants would have at some point refused to continue to administer the shocks.
In the first run of experiments, sixty-five percent of the participants went all the way up to 450 volts.
Sixty-five percent. For the sake of an experiment.
The participants weren’t happy about doing it. They made their concern about the learner’s well-being clear, for the most part. But when prompted by the serious looking man with the clipboard, they kept right on going.
When the initial study was released, it got quite a lot of attention, as you might expect. And there were some at the time who thought students should be taught to question authority, and not just blindly follow orders that were clearly wrong.
Not much came of it, of course. Because the people who are running the country don’t want a bunch of citizens or soldiers or employees questioning their orders all the time. They want obedience from the masses. They want most people to do what they’re told, when they’re told to do it. And so you don’t hear a whole lot about questioning authority or thinking critically in your average high school classroom. Maybe in college. If you’re one of those liberal arts majors, or in political science, or psychology, or some other field that focuses on how people interact with each other. And even then, the focus is usually on skepticism and critical thinking, rather than outright defiance of authority.
I’ve been on a bit of a defying authority kick lately.
Actually, my mother would tell you that’s been a constant theme in my life since I was about five. Not always defying authority, but at least questioning it. The poor woman was mystified by my tendency to disagree with teachers, often rather loudly and at great length, with examples and the odd footnote thrown in. And that was just grade school. But I digress.
In addition to re-reading Antigone, I’ve also been making my way through Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, which chronicles the author’s experiences in Germany as the Nazis rose to power there. And last week I also pulled out my copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It, another used book store find, and have been going through that, as well.
Truth be told, my bookshelves are rather full of that sort of reading material, in one form or another. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Lysistrata. Calvin & Hobbes. Dr. Seuss (that Cat in the Hat was a rebel, I tell you). Heck, even those books on Linux are related in a way, as they are part of my ongoing attempt to escape from the tyranny that is Microsoft and Apple.
But I always come back to Antigone.
She’s been my favorite ever since I read Jean Anouilh’s version of the play back in high school. His version was produced in Paris, in February of 1944, while Germany was occupying France and artists and playwrights there were forced to work under the suspicious eyes of Nazi censors. Anouilh’s version of the play was necessarily more nuanced, the ethical lines less clear than earlier versions of the story. The play never would have opened had it been otherwise, at least not before the Nazis were driven out of France. But it was clear enough to the audience what the story was about.
Antigone was the Resistance, Creon the Vichy government.
She’s a difficult character to warm up to. She’s a bit overbearing in her righteousness. And she’s also a bit defiant merely for the sake of being defiant: in the play, the second time she covers her brother’s body with dirt was unnecessary as far as the religious rites were concerned. His spirit would have already moved on. No, the second time, she buries him to make a point: that tyrants should not be obeyed when their edicts are unjust. And she is willing, even proud to sacrifice her life in order to make that point. You kind of have to think, is it really worth your life just to make a political point, when other lives aren’t hanging in the balance at that moment?
But when it comes down to standing up for one’s ideals, very few can hold a candle to her.
It’s just that I can’t help thinking how different the past few years might have been if various people in the upper echelons of our government had been a bit more in touch with their inner Antigone.
Like when Bush and Cheney were trying to start a “preemptive” war with Iraq based upon manipulated intelligence findings.
Or when someone suggested that torture should be made a part of official US policy.
Or when someone decided to run our Constitution through the shredder.
Or…well, you know, this could end up being an awful long list, now that I think about it.
On the other hand, would any one person have been able to make much of a difference at the time? It’s hard to say. Consider how more moderate voices in the executive branch were gradually forced out of their positions by the hard-liners. Or how the whole “Plame-gate” scandal got started because former Ambassador Joe Wilson spoke out publicly about his findings regarding administration claims that the Iraqis were attempting to acquire “yellowcake” uranium from sources in Africa. Or how U.S. Attorneys who refused to institute prosecutions against Democratic officials on flimsy pretenses were replaced by ones willing to take the case. Or…well, I guess this one could be a pretty long list, too.
So maybe there were plenty of people who were in touch with their inner Antigone, but they weren’t able to get the word out widely enough, or weren’t taken seriously by the media.
Our wonderful, consolidated, corporate-controlled, authoritarian-enabling mainstream media.
Where am I going with all this? I’m not really sure, to be honest.
Over the past few months or maybe years, my own inner Antigone has been reawakening. Stretching and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes after a long slumber. And I think that very soon, she’s going to be ready to take her act back out on the road.
I’m going to be making a few big changes in my life over the next few weeks, so my posting here will be a bit erratic for a while. I’ve decided to take fall semester off from my graduate studies, get out of Redstatesville for a while, and see what kind of trouble I can get myself into in the last few months before the November election.
It should be fun. Or at least interesting, which is often nearly as good as fun, and sometimes even better.
I’ll keep you posted, my dear non-existent readers (and also the one or two of you who have been leaving comments lately), when my plans are a bit clearer. For now, however, I have a six-year-old’s birthday party to attend one state over, so I need to be hitting the road.
And lest there be any doubt in the matter, I still think Bush and Cheney ought to be impeached.
* I used the masculine pronoun throughout my description of Milgram’s experiment instead of making it gender-neutral because back in the days when the study was being conducted, nearly all human psychological research used only white males as study participants.
For many years, the field of psychology, like the field of medicine, treated white males as the norm for the entire population, and everybody else who was not a white male was considered merely a deviation from the norm. The fact that most of the early psychological and medical research was also being conducted almost exclusively by white males is probably just a coincidence.
This lead to a lot of situations where the psychologists and doctors trying to apply the results of research to their patients found that the treatment or intervention (whether psychological or medical) did not work as advertised when dealing with patients who were not white males. This was particularly problematic on the medical side of things, as there were patients who actually died or suffered serious complications because their bodies did not respond the way a white male’s body would to the medications or dosages their doctors prescribed.
Often the most dangerous assumptions are the ones we don’t even realize we’re making.
What does this have to do with the rest of the post? Nothing, really. I just thought I’d mention it.