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FACING HISTORY (Part III): DISTORTING SCIENCE TO ATTACK THE IDEA OF DEMOCRACY
by John Spritzler
The central idea of democracy is that ordinary people are fit to rule. Throughout history the privileged few who rule over the many have sought to undermine this idea one way or another. The latest method that corporate leaders have adopted involves using liberal rhetoric with its catch words and phrases -- "tolerance," "diversity," and opposition to "hate" and "racism" -- to undermine the idea of democracy.
The new corporate approach is to convince people that genuine democracy might not be such a good idea because so many ordinary people are prone to bigotry and ready to follow demagogues, the way Germans supposedly eagerly followed Hitler. To spread this view, corporate leaders are posing as champions of "tolerance" and exhorting the public to be less "hateful." They do this in a manner designed to make it seem as if ordinary people are dangerous -- the very source of bigotry and hate. The goal is to undermine the idea of majority rule.
A case in point is the liberal foundation, Facing History And Ourselves, which reaches 600,000 middle and high school students a year with its course on the Holocaust. This course is based on a big lie. It teaches, contrary to fact, that most Germans backed Hitler and wanted to kill the Jews. (See parts I and II of this article.) The popularity of the Facing History Holocaust course is due to the fact that it purports to be against bigotry and prejudice. Facing History frames its discussion of prejudice, however, in the context of a profoundly negative view of ordinary people. If people are really the way Facing History says they are, then they certainly should not rule society.
DISTORTING A FAMOUS EXPERIMENT
Facing History and Ourselves argues that the Nazis succeeded in carrying out the Holocaust because most people are not only prone to bigotry, but are also morally weak: they obey authority instead of their conscience. To make sure students draw this conclusion, Facing History precedes its discussion of the Holocaust (in its Resource Book, Facing History And Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior) with a distorted account of a series of famous experiments on the psychology of obedience to authority, conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960's.
Facing History distorts the account of the famous Milgram experiments to convince students that only extraordinary people can be relied on to stand up for what is right. As Facing History relates, in these experiments subjects were falsely told that they were part of an experiment to study the effect of punishment on learning and that the experiment required them to give short but very painful electrical shocks to other subjects who had agreed to be the "learner." Facing History tells students that when the authority figure in the experiment asked the subjects to administer the shocks, "the majority of normal, average subjects behave[d] in evil (felonious) ways" and that even those subjects who refused to give the shocks still didn't "denounce the researcher." Quoting Hannah Arendt, Facing History wonders: "How do average even admirable people become dehumanized by the critical circumstances pressing in on them?" "What, Facing History asks, is blind obedience?" The effect on students of this account would be quite different, however, if Facing History informed students of two crucial facts which their Resource Book does not mention. First, the reason subjects didn't "denounce the researcher" was because they were told right after participating that the electrical shocks were fake and that the "learner" who cried out in pain was an actor.
Second, and more importantly, the conclusion drawn from the experiments by Stanley Milgram is quite different from the conclusion drawn by Facing History. The key distinction Milgram makes is that people obey and believe in what they perceive to be legitimate authority that serves a "desirable end," not just any authority. In his book, Obedience to Authority, Milgram concludes that "A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority." He adds, "Ideological justification is vital in obtaining willing [his emphasis] obedience, for it permits the person to see his behavior as serving a desirable end...The experiment is presented to our subjects in a way that stresses its positive human values: increase of knowledge about learning and memory processes. These ends are consistent with generally held cultural values. Obedience is merely instrumental to the attainment of these ends."
But Facing History wants students to view ordinary people as a dangerous element who just obey authority "blindly," no matter how evil it may be, and so they conclude the unit on this experiment by asking students: "What encourages obedience? Is it fear of punishment? A desire to please? A need to go along with the group? A belief in authority?" Facing History doesn't tell students that Milgram's own book suggests that the answer should be none of the above, but rather "a belief that the authority embodies positive human values."
Facing History describes a second experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo, also a Yale psychologist, to reinforce its point that people are innately prone to hatefulness. In this experiment volunteer men were made to assume roles of guards and prisoners. Facing History quotes Zimbardo as saying that the mock prison had to be shut down because "the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced." (This quotation is supposedly from a journal called Societies, but librarians at Harvard University could find no trace of such a journal.)
Zimbardo's prison experiment in fact shows, if anything, that people are not innately hateful. In his web page discussion of the experiment Zimbardo indicates that only one third of the guards exhibited cruel behavior, and this was prompted by their being ordered to subject the prisoners to very real physical and emotional abuse and then to suppress a very real rebellion. The cause of the cruel behavior in the experiment was not "human nature;" the cause was the experimenter creating circumstances that fomented cruelty. (In real life it is not experimenters, but elites who work very hard to create the circumstances that foment prejudice. They spread lies and discriminate against certain groups to turn people against one another to divide-and-rule. Using these experiments to suggest that prejudice comes from human nature is just an attempt to deflect attention away from the real cause.)
As for the origin of prejudice, Zimbardo wrote a book on this subject which expresses views quite different from the ones Facing History attributes to him. In his The Psychology of Attitude Change and Social Influence, in a section called "Some Origins of Prejudiced Attitudes," Zimbardo says there are two major types of explanation for prejudice: "dispositional," meaning due to the personality of individuals, and "historical sociocultural." Zimbardo illustrates the latter approach by noting that "The economic advantage accruing to those in power over those they discriminate against is obvious in the institutions of slavery and apartheid, ... and in the unequal pay and limits on advancement of women and minorities. Prejudice and discrimination pay off for some people; they did so for the founding fathers of America who were slaveholders, and they still do for those who exploit unskilled and blue-collar laborers in mines and farms and factories." Regarding the "dispositional" explanation of prejudice, the idea that it comes from something wrong with people's personality, Zimbardo writes, "However, this view is not accepted by social psychologists as the full explanation of prejudice because it is too narrowly intrapsychic without acknowledging all of the social causes of prejudice." Thus both Zimbardo and Milgram reject the conclusions from their own experiments that Facing History draws from them.
Facing History's negative view of people is not an isolated fluke. Corporate leaders of the most powerful institutions in society are attacking the idea of democracy in novel ways. On November 16, 1999 FleetBoston Financial Corporation ran a full page advertisement in the Boston Globe, promoting its sponsorship of Team Harmony. The ad's text makes it clear that when it comes to bigotry, FleetBoston believes that the problem is not people with wealth and power, but average teenagers. Hence the ad describes Team Harmony as "a program developed to help teens overcome bigotry and learn to respect people of all races and backgrounds. "It is especially audacious for Boston bankers to preach "tolerance" to teenagers since it is well known that it was Boston's bankers who used discriminatory mortgage policies (the notorious "redlining" of neighborhoods) in the 1960's to create black residential ghettos.
Another example reveals the utter contempt that the elite have for regular people. The Boston Globe, one of the nation's most liberal newspapers, now owned by the New York Times and for decades the leading mouthpiece for New England's corporate leadership, used the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday to accuse most people of having values and dreams the opposite of MLK's. On January 17, 2000 the Globe itself ran a full page advertisement. Under the heading "Most People" the ad listed three dreams: Winning the lottery, Owning a big house and car, and Being a movie star. Under the heading "Martin Luther King, Jr." they printed his famous "I have a dream" speech. Message: regular people are self-centered and petty whereas elite leaders like the Globe's owners share MLK Jr's idealism and vision.
TURN THE ATTACK AROUND
We should not let their use of liberal and progressive rhetoric disguise the fact that corporate leaders are trying to undermine all of the truly progressive efforts of people to make our society more equal and democratic. The very fact that corporations feel obliged to pose as champions of "tolerance" in order to gain public approval is itself evidence that the public is by and large opposed to prejudice and bigotry. The corporate portrayal of ordinary people as hateful, bigoted and selfish is meant to make people feel so alone and hopeless about the prospect of building a revolutionary movement for a better world that they will not even try.
Let's turn this corporate attack around, by having conversations with friends and neighbors and co-workers about the real elitist message behind the liberal rhetoric. My son took the Boston Globe's MLK ad to his high school and pointed out to his teachers and friends how disgustingly anti-people it was. They all agreed. Now the Globe has far less influence among those people, despite its liberal reputation. The more we expose how corporations lie about ordinary people to portray them as the source of the problems in society, the more confidence people will have in each other that they are indeed fit to rule society and create a real democracy.
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