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Cures that could be worse than the diseases

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – May 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

PERSONALLY, I’D LIKE TO BELIEVE that I would have been a great freedom fighter if I’d lived in Nazi Germany — hating every nuance of Nazi policy, hiding people in my attic, sneaking people across borders.

But then I realize that for me to have been like that in those circumstances would have meant endangering my family, my neighbors, and my life. That’s when I face the fact that I might have just been cowering under my bed instead.

And then finally, I realize that there is the possibility that I would have just gone along with it, joined the SS, gone out to see the parades, ignored the ominous undercurrents and not worried too much about exactly where they were sending those Jews and Gypsies.

I, of course, don’t believe that latter scenario for a moment, and I suspect that very few people who weren’t there believe that they would have participated. Yet history pretty much proves that normal, well-intentioned people can be led astray.

Last week, I was editing copy in the middle of the night (which I often do since there is nothing worse than completing four or five pages of reading before I realize that what I’ve actually been doing is thinking about the last phone call or what Ed has on the radio).

Anyway, I decided to take a break and turned on the television, and lo and behold the PBS community college class I turned on was called “Sociology and the Media.” (If you ever happen to suffer from insomnia, some of the PBS classes that air between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. are fascinating, and I highly recommend them — especially the Earth, Faces of Culture, and Sociology and Psychology classes currently shown on Friday night).

But to get back to my subject, in that particular class on media one of the speakers they interviewed reinforced something I’ve been thinking lately. In spite of all the blather about the media being “liberal,” it is actually far too reliant upon authoritarian sources for its news to not reflect the official viewpoint. The sociologist on PBS used the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident as an example. The media got it wrong because the military was their primary source.

But it works the same at the local level. The media rely on the police, the courthouse, and on city officials for their information. Moreover, reporters are often assigned beats, and they tend to establish genial relationships with their sources. And thus the same reporters who were previously friends with officials, get to investigate police shootings and government corruption — which, according to the sociologist, makes the media a traditionalist reinforcer of the manners, mores and mistakes of a society.

But I’d go a step further in my conclusion. I’d say that because newspapers follow the powers that be around when there’s a story like the Ramsey case or the Columbine shootings — even when nothing of note is happening — newspapers actually precipitate events. Reporters keep pushing to know what’s being done, why something hasn’t been done, and when something is going to be done. They hound the victims, they badger the police, and they mass like flies on roadkill.

Recently, stories of false convictions, police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct have been endemic in the news. But why do the powers that be resort to falsifying evidence and beating on suspects? I suspect that such things may happen because we demand results — now, not later.

On the whole, I suspect the media deserve at least some of the credit for many of the headline-making fiascoes perpetrated by prosecutors and police recently — because it strikes me that the media are actually neither “liberal” nor “conservative” these days. Instead, in the face of technological advances that allow for being on the scene and viewing the carnage, the media have grown increasingly reactionary.

THERE’S AN EVER-INCREASING “IMMEDIACY” to the news, a need to make it visual, a tendency to reduce it to sound bites, that feeds an inclination to turn elections into horse races and tragedies into soap operas. Long-winded speeches by candidates are shortened, encapsulated, and reduced to the most provocative of statements as the media succumbs to a penchant for discussing the issues rather than reporting them. Crime coverage is rife with gossip, speculation, and misinformation, and the media thrive on the not so subtle implication that our police and courts are never doing enough, fast enough.

Such trends do not lead to a conservative approach, nor to a liberal one. But whether it’s from listening to Dr. Laura or Rush Limbaugh, or reading the Mountain Mail, Ken Hamblin and Chuck Green, I figure that most people have already realized that the media are not all that liberal.

The classroom expert, however, also had another, equally alarming concern. He presented statistics on how newspaper readership has consistently gone down, and how more and more people rely upon television for their news (even though it generally reduces the issues to short recaps without any analysis) — if they bother with news at all. Indeed, according to him, even devoted newspaper readers tend to prefer the “sections” — such as sports, market information and entertainment — to real news or political analysis. And thus he concluded that, due to electronic media, Americans are becoming increasingly shallow and ignorant. (Except for our readers, of course, who are undoubtedly getting more profound and knowledgeable with every word).

As if that show weren’t depressing enough, it was followed by a social psychology class about the nature of people in crowds. The psychology class started by profiling a psychologist named Kurt Lewin who began researching group dynamics in the mid 1940s because he wanted to understand what had happened in Nazi Germany. The class then aired footage from some early social psychology experiments (which would now be considered unethically hazardous to the future mental health of the subjects).

In the most revealing experiment, a friendly-looking, middle-aged guy was told that he was supposed to impose shocks on a subject in order to test whether pain could improve memory. Each time the person undergoing the memory test got a question wrong, the man was supposed to impose a greater shock.

The man giving the shocks was in a separate room from the presumed receiver, but the shock controller could hear the assumed recipient begging, screaming, and demanding that it stop. The experiment was, of course, designed to test how far ordinary people would go when given authoritative instructions, and no one was actually given a shock. This experiment was repeated again and again on subjects who were allegedly normal, well-adjusted guys.

Before the experiment, researchers predicted that most subjects would only push the buttons until they got to the shock button labeled moderate. But they were wrong. Seventy percent of the subjects stuck with the experiment even when they believed they were imposing potentially lethal shocks. In the footage shown, the subject often turned to the instructor and warned him that any consequences would be the instructor’s fault, but the man never really protested. And no subjects tested ever asked to be released from the experiment.

In a slightly more cheering experiment, boys were divided into three groups and assigned a task. The adult group leaders were instructed to lead their groups by employing three methods. One leader was totally authoritarian, issuing orders and telling the boys exactly what to do, step by step. One was democratic, encouraging discussion and participation. And one was laissez-faire; he was present but didn’t intervene in the boys’ project.

Thankfully, the results suggested that democracy really does work. Under democratic leadership, the boys got more work done, and were co√∂perative and friendly with one another, even when the leader stepped out of the room. Under the autocratic instructor, the boys worked harder when the instructor was in the room, but relaxed whenever he left, and they also started getting pretty violent with one another whenever the supervisor wasn’t there. Although the kids under the laissez-faire instructor stayed nice enough, they never did accomplish anything.

THE DOWNSIDE to that experiment, however, was that all three groups of boys worked under all three instructors and all of the boys responded in the same way to the different styles of leadership. Thus, those experiments — and others — made the social psychologists conclude that how people will react is not a function of personality, but of the situation. Such studies also clearly suggested that nearly all men will participate in egregious activities given the proper environment.

I, on the other hand, don’t really want to believe that, and according to Phillip Zimbardo, the professor and host on the show, neither does anyone else, but…

I mean, somehow, you’ve got to believe that you are that rare one in a thousand who would never do anything like that.

Which brings me to something Patty Limerick wrote that’s in a book reviewed right here in this issue. “Describing the West as morally complex, I have had many opportunities to observe, will elicit a chorus of dismay and protest against such a negative point of view…

“The deeply frustrating lesson of history in the American West and elsewhere is this: human beings can be a mess — contentious, conflict-loving, petty, vindictive, and cruel — and human beings can manifest grace, dignity, compassion, and understanding in ways that leave us breathless.”

So now — assuming that all of those social psychologists were right — all we have to do is create the right situation to make us manifest some of that grace, dignity, and compassion.

Except it may not be that simple if authoritarianism really does encourage bad behavior, since, for two decades now, we’ve been embracing autocratic measures as the optimal solution to our problems.

In spite of the fact that most Americans insist that they want a less intrusive government, citizens keep clamoring for more laws, more control over their neighbors, harsher sentences, higher fines, prayer in schools, a flag-burning amendment… State legislatures mandate water meter legislation, drug and sex education, gun control laws. Local governments impose seat belt laws, helmet laws, curfews, watering restrictions. Every week on the news someone is insisting that we need another law or another restriction. The police employ undercover agents to spy on citizens, and social service agencies investigate at will. But it is never enough.

In recent years, urban police departments launched a “war on crime,” and now it seems that some of their own police officers have joined the criminal ranks. A recent scandal in Los Angeles broke when a police officer/informer testified that his division had been beating up suspected gang members, falsifying evidence, perjuring themselves at trials, making false accusations, and actually selling drugs. In a bizarre twist, the police officers had even started wearing grinning skull tattoos which resembled much of the gang insignia in the neighborhood they were employed to protect.

IN THE LAST DECADE, sixty-seven people serving lengthy sentences — including many facing execution — have been exonerated by modern DNA evidence. During a television interview, one of the falsely accused men freed due to testimony in the L.A. scandal, admitted that he had gladly pled guilty and had even considered himself lucky — in spite of his innocence — since he had been facing 32 years to life and they had offered him an eight-year sentence if he’d plead guilty.

In a new book about “the wrongly convicted,” authors Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer identify false confessions as a leading cause of convicting the innocent. Yet now law-enforcement agencies across the country are urging the Supreme Court to abandon the Miranda ruling. Apparently, they feel it is not all that important for the accused to understand his rights.

THIS IS AN ELECTION YEAR, so once again we will hear how the candidates will improve the economy and increase the benefits of America’s deserving citizens while they simultaneously crack down on the undesirables, the immoral, and the immigrants. Since same-sex marriage has been in the headlines recently, there will — no doubt — be a little gay-bashing added to some of the stump speeches this year. And we will, of course, be promised better schools, better education, and better lives. That platform, however, didn’t work for Adolph Hitler, so it probably won’t work for us.

It is, however, somewhat unfair to invoke the specter of Hitler’s reign — since policies in Nazi Germany precipitated a one-of-a-kind debacle, a progression of tragic events of unprecedented dimension. But it is not so rare for disaster to be brought on by our all-too-human instinct to identify groups of people — who live within our own societies — as a threat to our well-being, and to thus seek to curb them, stop them, or even destroy them. History records pogroms, witch-burnings, religious persecution in Europe, ethnic-cleansing in the Balkans, a million murdered in Thailand, Siberian prison camps, mayhem in Tiananmen Square, an American Civil War, the taking of souvenir body parts at Sand Creek, Japanese-American internment camps, McCarthyism.

Yet even so, when reflecting on Nazi Germany — although it may only be wishful thinking on my part — I usually conclude that Americans are too individualistic, rebellious, and freedom-loving to ever let their desire for control get totally out of hand.

I figure we’ll follow the current course for a few more years — by criminalizing accidents, demanding vengeance, encouraging brutality, and allowing our courts to disintegrate into theaters featuring prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, and unreliable evidence. Then, when there are too many public scandals to ignore, we’ll reverse the tide.

In the meantime, however, there’s that grim possibility that the very measures we’re adopting in order to protect ourselves — from crime, terrorism, corruption, and wickedness — may merely be exacerbating our problems.