Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Arkan was a great one for corporate team-building away days

Of all the things which fill me with horror, the very idea of organised fun is one of the worst. I've never been a great one for joining in with group activities and am firmly of the view that if you can get people doing the hokey-cokey you can get them to goose-step and 'sieg heil' too. It may only be a semi-serious point, but it's something that Dionysus's party people knew full well: if you cajole, convince or coerce people into losing their self consciousness in the interests of fitting in with group behaviour, you are ensuring they take no responsibility for deciding what is a fitting way to conduct themselves. And from then it's only a short step to who knows what horrors... dancing along to YMCA with all the gestures, possibly.

What set me going on the topic was this. The stuff about Tory politics you can take or leave. What interested me was the discussion about Philip Zimbardo's new book The Lucifer Effect subtitled How Good People Turn Evil.

Now, it's terribly bad form to start commenting on a book you haven't read (but it usually takes me around 18 months to get round to reading these things) so we'll go with Danny Finkelstein's summary for now:

his answer is that any one of us is capable of dreadful behaviour depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our concentration on the personality of evil people, on their dispositions, is a mistake. We should think instead of the situation.

At least half of The Lucifer Effect is devoted to an account of one of the most disturbing experiments conducted by a social psychologist – Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment... The great social psychologist Stanley Milgram had once wondered if he could find enough people in the whole of America to behave as the Nazis had. Experimental work had persuaded him that he could find all he needed just in New Haven. After the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo agreed.

This is the point that interests me: we could, all of us, under the right set of circumstances find ourselves doing abhorrent things. I think it's a topic that has been relatively under-explored outside of academia, probably because it forces us to confront some unpleasant facts about human nature and ourselves. You can see this collectively, in the difficulty many countries have in facing up to the worst aspects of their past (Britain included). Still, I've long thought that while films like Schindler's List help explain what happened in the Holocaust, a film exploring how the ordinary people who became guards at Auschwitz came to do what they did would be far more effective in preventing a future atrocity.

But amidst all the recent debate about William 'Send the Kids Down't Pit' Wilberforce, and whether an apology for slavery is or is not a worthwhile thing (and the raw nerves it touches), it's easy to forget that most people were able to tolerate slavery for a long time because all that nice trade, cheap sugar, rum, cockles, clothing and eastern European hookers and extra dosh sloshing around the country gave them an easier life.

Only, I don't need to look to history or foreign countries to find examples of what I'm talking about: you'll find it all in the recent history of Northern Ireland. I know at least one friend of mine regards my interest in Northern Irish matter as a boring obsession, but if what went on within his own state, within his own lifetime isn't the most pertinent and troubling example of what I mean, it's not just his short attention span I'd worry about.

It was people pretty like himself and myself (my family background: Ulster Protestant, Irish Catholic and English) committing, or often excusing, these acts a few miles away in a collective madness. You all know the sort of thing I mean, and depending on your perspective and nationality the first ones you thought of will probably have been committed by the side you least identify with. But here's a full list: all prompted by idealism; fear; an unexpected and quite exhilarating sense of power and – sometimes – pure, primal savagery.

The thing is very few of these acts would have been committed by individuals if it wasn't for the role that their chosen group identity permitted them to play. In such circumstances it's worth reminding ourselves that might have been me, make sure that it never is.

Of course, there are many who prefer the opportunities for whiny, petty, aggrieved victimhood that the Troubles gave them. But though I think it's dangerous nonsense, especially from the dreaded Plastic Paddies, the worst of it is that I don't really blame them for doing it. It's probably what I'd do under the circumstances. And this, I think, is the most disturbing thing of all. It's unlikely that humans will never accept what monstrous things we might do until it's too late.

This is why, the semi-serious point on which I started, offers some small comfort. There are worst things in the world than being a non-joiner in, a sneering, cynical cad or serial lurker in kitchens at parties. Why you might be forcing your own idea of fun on people who would, left to their own devices, want nothing to do with it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are worst things in the world than being a non-joiner in, a sneering, cynical cad or serial lurker in kitchens at parties.

Oh I don't know about that

(Being Neil Clark, perhaps)

That wikipedia discussion is moderately enlightening in its way!

1:20 pm  

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