By Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Have you seen that photo in which Nazi officials appear to be having a lot of fun? They’re standing on a wooden bridge, all posed in their own way; one man carries an accordion. They are so cheerful, you would even want to share their enjoyment.
But it is a photo taken in a Nazi concentration camp. In that very particular moment, these “cheerful officials” may even be smelling the stench of burning human flesh coming from the crematorium right in front of them.
Who are these people? Are they monsters? I think they were the “normal,” “ordinary” men and women of their own time. If we could go back in time and interview each of them, we could get responses such as “We were following orders. We thought we were serving the best interests of our country,” and, “On that particular day, we thought we deserved to have a damned good open door party, we had so much fun.”
If there was any person in that group who could not manage to entertain himself or failed to share in his friends’ “joy,” he would probably be labeled as “weird,” the “strange guy,” the “neurotic one.”
In times of crisis, our “normal” man just follows orders without feeling any discomfort, whereas some men and women, and they always constitute a minority in any given society, disobey the orders and follow what their personal conscience dictates to them. The majority bend everything -- their religious beliefs, their ideologies, personal beliefs -- to follow “orders.” Only a small minority go in a different direction.
In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram performed an extremely interesting study at Yale University. The purpose of this test was to measure the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform to acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.
Milgram invited experimenters from all walks of life. The real purpose of the experiment was disguised very cleverly. The experimenters were told that the university was doing a study to examine the effects of punishment on learning abilities.
There were three people in the test room: Milgram (the authority figure), the “student” (his assistant) and a “teacher” (experimenter). The experimenters were told that they had an equal chance of playing the role of a student or a teacher, but the process was rigged so that all experimenters ended up playing the role of the “teacher.”
“Teachers” were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to the “learners” when they failed to answer questions correctly. At the beginning of the test, the “teachers” were given a low-dosage electric shock to show them that the shocks they would give the students were “real.” In fact, the cable attached to the “student” was not connected to anything.
The “teacher” was not in a position to give any actual electricity, but the “student” was able to see how much “voltage” the teacher was giving him on a panel in front of him. The “student” started to grunt with feigned pain when he saw the teacher attempt to give him a 74-volt shock. He yelled, moaned, begged, cried and screamed as the test continued and the voltage increased.
It is quite an interesting test, but I am not able to go into all the details of it due to my column’s space limitations. What happened at the end?
Of course the “teachers” hesitated at some points, but with the approval of the “authority” figure they gave “deadly” electric volts (450) to the “student,” who was “begging” them to stop the “experiment.” During this trial, only a minority of “teachers” questioned the authority, while 65 percent of the “teachers” were willing to progress to the maximum voltage level. If the electricity they thought they were giving had been real, they would have killed innocent people.
Obedient or disobedient
Do you think this experiment would produce any different result in the community that you belong to? I do not think so. We all like to think of ourselves as “normal” people, but normal people can do terrible things when circumstances allow. In this Milgram test 65 percent of the experimenters lost their humanity in a couple of hours. Try to imagine what they could be capable of doing under “harsh” conditions and as a result of being subjected to long-term agitation and brainwashing.
All these memories and thoughts came to my mind when I read Clive Owen’s article in The Times daily this Wednesday. Owen is an extremely talented movie star, but with this article of his, titled “In Rwanda, it’s as if genocide is still going on,” he also proved a gifted writer. Owen visited Rwanda very recently and in this article he shared his observations about the situation in Rwanda. Towards the end of his article he made some comments I found quite thought provoking. He said:
“The overriding feeling I came away with was not that there was a group of awful people doing terrible things during that time, it’s that we, as human beings, have the potential to do it. You don’t have to have an evil disposition to get involved in the horrors of something like this.
“People there were swept up into doing such things that, years later, they are still asking themselves why. To try to have a level of understanding of that is hugely important. It’s not about them and us. We have the potential to be those people. It’s a situation that develops that you have to be incredibly careful about.”
Owen is right. We all should be very careful about what we are getting ourselves into at all times. But if we start to question how a human being can do such terrible things to another human being, we should start from the very beginning, from our families, from school. And we should question everything, starting with being a “normal” person. After all this deep questioning and after transforming our cultural codes accordingly, we may create a culture in which the majority would refuse to take part in this cheerful Nazi picnic. We should question the Nazi within. What do you think?
Source: Todays Zaman, 09 April 2010