The Agentic State Is Stable

Hi everybody,

Welcome back. I am still feeling the tail-end of whatever the hell it was that sidelined me for a while now. During one of my numerous sleepless nights of late, I watched a film called “Experimenter” that was just added to Netflix.

expwerimenter

As is the case on this blog, I’m not about to review the movie, speak about its artistic strengths and/or weaknesses. For me, this movie is more a reminder. A starting point for these next few words I’m about to write, and in that – being a trigger for some thought – the film is a great success.

It’s no spoiler that the film revolves around social experiments conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and in the center of it all, the one started in Yale university, in which he observed people’s willingness to obey questionable orders.

The experiment was fairly simple:

  • A subject in the role of “The teacher” would sit in front of a switchboard which supposedly delivers electric shocks to another individual in the role of “The student“. The student sat in another room, not visible to the teacher.
  • The teacher is directed to deliver an increasingly higher shock to the student for every wrong answer for a long series of questions.
  • The maximum shock would be fatal.
  • The teacher would be told that the experiment is about the student’s ability to learn under the “threat” of the shock, and before the experiment started, the teacher was requested to receive the lowest shock he’d be asked to deliver to the student.
  • The student was in fact a part of the experiment team and received no shock at all.
  • With every wrong answer, a recording of the student expressing unease, pain and ultimately demands to stop would be played to the teacher.

Suffice to say that over 60% of the subjects delivered the shocks without fail up until the maximum strength. Some expressed distress, discomfort and some sympathy to the student. Others protested, but ultimately all of these 60%+ went all the way.

I find it disturbing, especially since this experiment was replicated in decades to come in different places on the globe with even bigger percentages of compliance (e.g. ~80% in France).

Stanley Milgram called this the agentic state, which means handing off responsibility for one’s actions and thus painting one’s self as an agent of someone else.

Milgram then became a target for much scorn.

Subjects and others proclaimed:

“I feel manipulated, deceived.”
“You lied to your subjects”
“You weren’t honest
You told them to do it”

among other accusations.

To which I have to say:

  1. What better conditions could exist for such an experiment? It’s actually the most realistic set, as we are all manipulated, deceived, lied to and most of all…
  2. Led to believe we don’t have a choice. Which is the whole point of the experiment. All the accusations are either “YOU/HE/THEY did something” or the like-minded “something happened TO US“.Where is the “I” and the “WE” in this discussion? There’s always a choice. There’s always consequence, but there’s always choice. And WE make it, one way or the other.

In this experiment, what was the consequence of saying “no”? How does it compare with the consequence (even if it’s only in the subject’s head) of compliance?

I fear that this agentic state is stable, that is, have been instilled in us for as long as a century (at the very least). This is not only reminiscent of the holocaust, though that played a major role in Milgram’s motivation. It’s in so many things we do, or not do and have been doing for a very long time now.

There are many ways to change that, but none of which could be imposed on the individual. Guess what, it’s a matter of choice. Ask any practicing Buddhist.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie? are you familiar with Milgram’s experiments?

Until next time…

Chrissie Hynde Vs. The Pretenders

Hello hello,

Thanks for stopping by again. Today’s challenge – Treading carefully through a mine field.

The first female singer I absolutely loved is Chrissie Hynde. Before I learned about Janis Joplin, Kate Bush or Annie Lennox. The coolness, her being a rocker and being better at that than so many men. Maddona – who reportedly looked up to Hynde – perhaps brought the (debatable) “courage” to bring sex to the forefront, but for me, it was always Chrissie Hynde that comes up when talking about female rockers in a men’s world (among a few others of course).

And why do I bring all this up? Well, of course, it’s because the Internets caught fire after a quote was posted by this magnificent singer.

You know, if you don’t want to entice a rapist, don’t wear high heels so you can’t run from him. If you’re wearing something that says ‘Come and f–k me’, you’d better be good on your feet…

Instead of listing all the things that were said about Hynde by everyone and their sister (and they were plenty…), I’ll just share THIS column from SPIN magazine.

The over-arching theme of the backlash was – understandably – the rape victim’s responsibility.

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Disclaimer: I have thankfully never been assaulted sexually and I won’t pretend to “know how it feels”. I have one thing to say about sex – “NO MEANS NO“. No excuses. No buts, ifs or whys.

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What did Chrissie say? Did any of it actually justify rape? Did any of it actually mean that “some rapes are justifiable”? One could come to this conclusion. But one should not.

We love to pretend. We love to think of ourselves as enlightened, modern and open human beings. But can we stop pretending for a short moment? Can we be honest with ourselves? Let’s try to answer these questions (and you can answer it for yourselves, or here in the comments section):

  • Would you let your daughter wear anything she wants?
  • Would you wear just anything to go anywhere?
  • How safe would you feel about these choices?

And finally:

Is it really a matter of victim’s responsibility? Or is it a matter of us, living in a society, where “provocative” dress code is, in fact, an invitation to some perverts?

Why don’t we get off our high horses for a minute and make the best decisions we can. This is not putting an ounce of responsibility for a rape on the victim. It’s taking responsibility for our choices, and I for one think that Chrissie Hynde did just that.

Not more.

Let me know what you think.