Less Than Human
Less Than Human: Are We Hard-Wired to Abuse One Another?
The “good old days” used to be a phrase that most people took for granted. People, as they grew older, would regard the world and events from their past with a sense of reverent awe. Young people would shake their heads and cluck their tongues and it soon became apparent to some that there never really were “good old days” and that it was a trick of memory. While it is generally understood by most that a lot of the reverence for the past amounts to nothing more than nostalgia, anyone who has been keeping up with current events would not be entirely mistaken to say that our country has, in fact, seen better times than the present.
The stresses of modern life weigh heavily on most of us and our power to solve or circumvent the problems we face every day depend largely on two things: our position in society and others’ perception of their position in society relative to ours. Nowhere is this more apparent than in artificially closed situations.
In 1971, a research group funded by the Office of Naval Research and led by Professor Philip Zombardo at Stanford university conducted a now-infamous study of human behavior in which student participants were divided into two groups. One group played the role of prison guards dressed in uniforms, each of them equipped with a whistle and a billy club. The other group were cast in the role of prisoners, dressed accordingly, and subject to the whims of the fake guards, who were told to behave in whatever way they felt necessary to command respect and obedience from their “prisoners.” Though physical violence was strictly forbidden in this experiment, some participants took their roles as guards so seriously that they inflicted psychological abuse on some of the prisoners. Many of the “prisoners” accepted this psychological abuse and, in some instances, openly harassed other “prisoners” who demonstrated defiance of the guards’ perceived authority.
The whole exercise was terminated six days after it began after the objections of a graduate student, whom Professor Zombardo was incidentally dating. Though the experiment, now notorious in the halls of academia and the world in general, was not completed, there are still many disturbing conclusions that can be drawn from its results.
Ordinary people were placed in positions of authority. Others were placed in positions subordinate to those playing the role of guards. Both parties in the experiment seemed to lose touch with reality. Guards abused prisoners, prisoners accepted the abuse and any participant in the experiment who attempted to intervene were treated punitively.
Fast forward to the present day and one can see that we are literally inundated with news of events where people in uniforms treat those who do not wear the uniforms as less than human. Police shooting unarmed civilians and beating up on defenseless people. There have even been incidents where mall security guards have adopted the attitude that they are police. In such situations, mall shoppers have often been subjected to both verbal and physical abuse. This writer, in fact, can personally attest to this as I, myself, have been beaten up by mall security.
This phenomenon, though, is by no means restricted to people in positions of security or law enforcement. In a recent incident, a passenger on a United Airlines flight was beaten and violently dragged from the plane. The reason: The airline overbooked the flight and the passenger, a doctor, refused to give up the seat he paid for because he wanted to go home. Immediately after the incident, an email was distributed to United employees from United CEO Oscar Munoz saying he was “upset” by the incident, but cast blame on the customer. He blamed the victim and, only after a ferocious public outcry, softened his language and attempted to convey a sympathetic tone.
In another outrageous incident aboard a flight, this time American Airlines, a flight attendant struck a woman in the face with a stroller as she cradled her baby in her arms. The woman apparently had difficulty understanding English and, when she did not immediately surrender the stroller, witnesses say that the flight attendant wrenched the stroller from the woman, striking her in the face and causing her and her baby to cry. Another passenger, outraged at the incident, stood up and confronted the flight attendant. Several passengers filmed with their cellphones as the flight attendant shouted at the man “Come on! Hit me!” In a statement issued after the altercation, American Airlines apologized for the incident. They rebooked the mother and her child on another flight in first class and summarily dismissed the employee.
Both incidents were exacerbated by the fact that they occurred in situations where large groups of people were confined together in an uncomfortable place. The people are not only expected, but instructed to comply with flight attendants under penalty of removal from the plane.
Whether a flight attendant, security guard, or even a politician does possess the authority that they believe they have, it has been proven time and again that this perception of power is almost always eventually abused.
Is it any wonder, then, that the world is full of so many nations where citizens seem willing to tolerate the rule of heartless dictators and despots? In sociological terms, this situation is referred to as the “authoritarian paradigm.”
Many people dispute this, apparently upset by the idea that such cruelty is endemic to humanity. Who can blame them? It is truly disturbing how little has changed in human nature since prehistoric times. The greater the stress, whether the cause is internal or external, the more basic and animal-like the behavior of ordinary people. Combine that with all the uncertainty of our times, the constant bombardment of the 24-hour news cycle, and the sense of powerlessness most people have and you’ve got the perfect conditions for the emergence of humanity’s darker nature.
So maybe there really was such a thing as the “good old days.” A time when the people of this country weren’t so quick to dehumanize others. A time when the people of America weren’t so jaded and hateful.
We can conduct investigations, punish offenders, enact new legislation, and put the blame for the state of our culture on others. However, until the underlying issues of corruption, disparity, and injustice are addressed nothing will change for the better. It can only get worse.