“You could stop expecting the most awful thing to happen, because it already did.”
– The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult –
Like most weeks, I have spent half this week in Poland. I’m there regularly, Germany too, although I have never been. I am not ready, you see, to make my way across its border, and place myself within its history. All my Poland-related schemas are not yet sufficiently in place to make the trip worthwhile, and I’ll leave too much learning in-country if I travel prematurely. So I stay wherever home may be, and cultivate my knowledge and understanding; for when the trip does come, the experience will be as torrentially powerful as it ought to be. When it comes, I will suffer, but not comparably so.
My research has spanned years: my introduction actually started in Amsterdam when I was 11 years old. I was quite taken aback with Anne, and her family and others in hiding. When I finished her diary, I read other books, fictional accounts of girls who lived through the war. They were aimed maybe at mid-teens and I can’t help think they were a good, but relatively safe, introduction to two life interests. People, I read, can be mean.
I don’t know which interest is the chicken and which is the egg, if both are either, or both are both, an amalgamation of the pair. Human nature and Central European WWII – can they be separated? As an annoying optimist, the propensity to discount what actually happened has been more difficult to explain away with research. I should have stopped long ago to keep my genuine belief that people are surprisingly wonderful. What’s even more annoying is a psychological experiment that was designed to prove me right in 1971 went wrong: instead of proving Germans were the only people who would turn into evil and obedient machines when given power, Zimbardo and his team discovered that ‘normal’ ‘good’ American college students can become the same. In six days. Torturing prisoners. Their peers.
For comprehensive information about this study, The Stanford Prison Experiment, click here. But here’s the skeletal premise: mentally and physically healthy, middle-class college students volunteered to participate in a Psychology experiment. Randomly, on paper, strangers and friends were separated into two groups. One group became the prisoners, the others, the guards. A block at Stanford University became a prison. The experiment was as real as could be simulated. Prisoners were arrested individually in their neighbourhoods, heads were shaven and each was given a change of clothes and id number. Prisoners had to stay within the make-shift cells for the duration of the experiment. On the other hand, guards would come for an 8 hour shift, returning to their normal environments at the end of their shift. The guards were serious but respectful the first day but already on the second day, the guards ranked up the experiment’s intensity. When prisoners attempted to barricade themselves in their cells in defiance of being wrongly accused, the guards responded with over-reactive abuse, intimidation and humiliation.
The abuse grew worse, with guards forcing straight prisoners to copulate each other as entertainment. Even Zimbardo found himself intrigued by it rather than concerned about his participants. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but apparently, after six days Zimbardo’s girlfriend (maybe financee, and heroin of this experiment) threatened to leave him if the experiment continued.
The experiment was abandoned.
Some prisoners and guards are still seeing mental health experts 40 years later as they try reconcile the ‘evil’ (I can’t think of a better word) that occurred in that university block. The trauma of being an abused, powerless prisoner; the trauma of being a guard and voluntarily inflicting abuse on others. Before going home to their friends and family after their shift. Just another day at work. With power.
Maybe, extrapolated, this is what Jesus meant when he said, What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them (Matt 15:11). Or does it? What is more treacherous: being evilly inflicted by someone, or your inflicting evil on someone else? I don’t know if I could bare knowing how evil I am; it’s too confronting if I, myself, am capable of that much evil.
And there it is: the briefest introduction I could deliver to a ceasingly interesting world.
Disclaimer: I still think people are surprisingly wonderful.