The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

“Bad systems” create “bad situations” create “bad apples” create “bad behaviors,” even in good people … we are not slaves to the power of situational forces. But we must learn methods of resisting and opposing them.

The above quote is what I believe to be the overall message of the work Zimbardo presents us with, asking us to please recognize the importance our society and the situations it places us in has on our mentality and morality. In order to help us better understand, he uses a simple comparison of morality to a car in neutral gear. The damage this car could have when left unsupervised depend on the situational forces. For example, if the car is set to neutral while on an incline it will accelerate faster by going downhill and whatever crash that is inevitable will be that much worse. Let’s apply that to the growing problem of police brutality. Let’s take a rookie cop, or even just a cop that has exhibited exclusively good behavior, and put them in the place of the car. In any sort of major institution such as law enforcement, you lose a bit of your individuality and become part of a pack. The weak or unsure will look to the strong and confident to model the way the will act. This sense of community, of belonging, the bond of understanding – of being in the same position as the others around you – is the hill the car is on. The “good” cops may not speak out against their more aggressive counterparts because of that strong sense of community. It would be a betrayal. There is also the possible effect from the lax punishments given to a majority of fellow police officers accused of brutality. Seeing their colleagues receive virtually a slap on the wrist for extreme aggression – a short ban from work or, in some cases where the officer was sent to jail, getting their sentence cut short by months or even years – only enforces the idea that they can get away with being more aggressive. They have become symbols of authority that cannot be challenged, and anyone who tries to is obviously hiding something and so deserves it. They feed this ideology to the public, and since it is a person in a position of power telling them this, the public does not question; they merely shake their heads and say “So many people nowadays are delinquents *sigh* what a world we live in.”

Human beings are capable of totally abandoning their humanity for a mindless ideology

Zimbardo was the director of an experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. He documents this experiment and his findings from it in the book thoroughly. It was simply a collection of college students divided into two groups: prisoners and guards. The experiment was initially meant to test how the dehumanization and humiliation present in prisons affects prisoners. What he found instead was how quickly the “guards” were able to slip into their “all-powerful” roles and ignore the pain and suffering of the “prisoners” – in some cases even enjoying their suffering. How? There was virtually no difference between the students other than the random assigned roles of prisoner or guard. However, those who were unlucky enough to be assigned prisoner were immediately stripped of everything that makes them individuals. They were assigned numbers and were only referred to by that number. The guards humiliated them and isolated anyone who refused to do their bidding by turning the other inmates against them (ex. refusing all prisoners blankets if one refused to do push ups). By dehumanizing a person or group of people, it is easier to harbor ill-will and possibly commit acts of evil against them. And, if you feel dehumanized enough, you lose sight of who you are and therefore can’t really find a part of any particular community. You are isolated and at the mercy of those who wanted you out of the way.

What does it take for the citizens of one society to hate another society to the degree that they want to segregate, torment, even kill them? It requires a “hostile imagination,” by propaganda that transforms those others into “The Enemy”

Dehumanization is prevalent today in the immigrant dilemma and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those people who are indifferent to certain matters such as these, because they are not directly affected by them, are fed the idea that these people – who are in so much pain and want to be heard and treated equally as those privileged enough to feel indifferent – are The Enemy, posing some sort of threat to their well-earned peaceful, quiet lives. What these “others” are really jeopardizing is an ideology. Those at the top, the ones benefiting from the ideology, feel threatened. They are the ones that have the most to lose. They don’t want their extreme amount of wealth and status and power taken from them, so they work to get those who are indifferent to believe they are also being threatened. They transform the painful cries and pleads from the “others” to unnecessary noise that needs to be erased. But those are cries for help. And it’s time we opened our ears and put all of our heads together for a solution that benefits EVERYONE, not just a small percentage at the top.

The first step in overthrowing an unacceptable social and political order is for citizens to realize that they are comfortably living within a lie

Ending the book, Zimbardo presents us with a “Ten-Step Program to Resist Unwanted Influences.” The two I find most important for us to look at and try to work on are: “I respect just authority but rebel against unjust authority” and “I can oppose unjust systems.” Listen more closely to your neighbors, your fellow lowly citizens. Work on taking their word over the voices of a system that has become self-serving instead of “for the people.” Times change and the systems and ideologies must change with them. One final quote for your consideration:

To encourage the sacrifice of youth for the sake of advancing the ideologies of the old must be considered a form of evil that transcends local politics and expedient strategies.

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