In the 1960s, Professor Stanley Migram conducted a famous experiment to understand role of obedience in situations where an individual may be complicit in an unethical action. In particular, he was curious as to why officers in the Germany military during WWII followed the heinous orders given them by Adolph Eichmann and Adolph Hitler. Surely, he thought, rational beings would recognize the immoral orders and refuse to comply; however, as we all know, the officers did not disobey orders, and one of the world’s great tragedies was allowed to continue unabated for years.
In his experiment, the researchers told participants that they would be delivering electric shock to unseen individuals whenever those individuals answered a question incorrectly. The premise was that the more wrong answers given, the higher the voltage and duration of the shocks to be administered. Participants controlled a dial that provided the shocks, and were told when to apply the voltage.
As wrong answers were given, “shocks” were delivered by the participants turning their dials with increasing intensity (of course, there were no real shocks, but participants did not know that). The participants with their hands on the dial heard screams (recorded), banging on the walls (faked) and were even told that one poor soul had a heart condition. They dialed up the electrical charges anyway. While the participants exhibited signs of stress, and some refused to be a part of the exercise, the majority did as they were told and delivered the electric pain as so ordered. Following directions from an authority figure seemed to have an inordinate power over the participants, even when their own personal morality conflicted with the behavior.
Obedience to authority trumps moral compass and sense of right and wrong. Of course, I would never have been one of those to keep shocking the innocent victims, but I guess you had to be there. I would have acted differently, or so I tell myself…just like many of us have viewed the sex abuse situation at Penn State and confidently declared that we would have acted differently, if only we were there.
I have remained largely silent on the tragic events that have been unfolding on the campus of Penn State. My silence on the matter does not mean that I haven’t been keeping up with the news. I have, as I am certain many of you are as well. Words cannot adequately describe the sadness I feel when imagining the plight of those boys at the hands of someone they deemed a trusted adult. It’s barbaric, and unconscionable. No earthly punishment could possibly fit the crime, although I might start with hooking up Milgram’s shock machine to the monster and setting the dial on high – no phony recorded screams this time.
The perp’s responsibility is clear. The question that has obsessed the media (and me to some degree) is the role of those who stood by while a crime was committed. What is the appropriate accountability for those who did nothing?
I waited to write about this because I did not feel that I could, in good conscious, comment without all the facts. Of course, in such a situation, we may never have all the facts. I am empathetic to the pain that Penn State alums are feeling about the whole sordid affair and I didn’t want to pile on. I recognize that part of their identities includes Joe Pa and the blemish-free fantasy that is Happy Valley. I sympathize with all those innocent graduates with their Nittany Lion throw pillows and Penn State flags that fly proudly on game day. Those fans and alum deserve better.
The case has been argued that State College residents circled the wagons in unconscious denial in order to protect their school and by extension, their own self-image. That sounded like too selfish a take for me. I think it would be more fair to focus only on those who had direct knowledge of what was happening and the ability to do something about it. “Do something about it”, by the way, should not include telling a superior and walking away. That is called “CYA” or covering your ass. That is not, under my definition, “doing something about it.” That’s merely “washing your hands.”
Maybe part of the truth of what happened is better explained by Milgram’s study. Authority is power, and nothing carries greater authority or power in State College than Penn State football. And nothing personified Penn State football more than its reputation as Linebacker U, a reputation built upon the coaching prowess of one Jerry Sandusky. If no one took on the great Sandusky, then perhaps he shouldn’t be challenged. Orders are not always given verbally, and yet they are understood.
By observing the silence of leaders who had the knowledge and ability to do something to stop this madness, the participants (other coaches, members of the administration) understood that silence was the expected behavior, regardless of the consequences to an innocent that was out of their sight. Milgram’s research may explain the behavior, but it cannot forgive it.
If it is true that we are conditioned to accept directions from authority that may conflict with our moral sense of right and wrong, this may be just the tip of the iceberg. Coaches are the ultimate authority in many a boy’s life.
This just gets sadder and sadder.
Inspired by an article I read:
Blinded by Human Nature and Compliance by Stephen Paskoff, written for Workforce.com