Official Culture Reprise II: Authoritarianism Revisited (1)

By M.K. Styllinski

“Probably about 20 to 25 percent of the adult American population is so right-wing authoritarian, so scared, so self-righteous, so ill-informed, and so dogmatic that nothing you can say or do will change their minds. They would march America into a dictatorship and probably feel that things had improved as a result. … And they are so submissive to their leaders that they will believe and do virtually anything they are told. They are not going to let up and they are not going away.”

– Professor Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians


Landscape

U.S. National Archives (public domain)

So, we return to the beginning of Shadowlands or “Official Culture” and why we are in the pickle we are today.

A major factor in the emergence of institutional psychopathy is the very human tendency to please authority figures to the point of individual and collective destruction, as discussed in Religious Authoritarians. Right wing, religious authoritarians, their authoritarian followers and the spellbinding effects of social dominators (psychopaths, sociopaths) are at the forefront of chaos and conflict in the world at this time and represent its crystallisation. But the allure of authoritarianism holds sway in much of the global population in varying degrees.  From this we can posit three main principles which have all but extinguished the creative potential of the majority of humanity in favour of subtle and overt forms of slavery.

These are:

ADDICTION TO FOLLOW AUTHORITARIANISM – our predisposition to follow authority figures and to thereby give away our freedom, in all senses of the word.

OUR WILFUL BLINDNESS – our predisposition to a comfort zone which maintains subjectivity, wishful thinking and their beliefs which keep disturbing – though truthful – realities at a distance. It is a left-over survival instinct mixed with early childhood conditioning which, initially valuable, has now become outmoded and dangerous. This mental and emotional stance only allows filtered impressions to form a mosaic of perception and thus an approximation of objective reality. It is a conscious choice not to face external and internal “demons.”

PONEROLOGY – our lack of knowledge of evil or psychopathy adjusted for political purposes and sub-categories of anti-social behaviour, both in the wider field and in our daily lives.

Acts of cruelty by others is not an unquantifiable mystery. In fact, the internal compass of social responsibility and ethical constraints has proven to be alarmingly malleable.

In 1961 social psychologist Yale university professor Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment on obedience measuring the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure. This particular individual instructed them to deliver electric shocks of greater intensity until it conflicted with their personal conscience. The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: “Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” In other words, “Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?” [1] It is one of the most intriguing social psychology studies ever undertaken.

The Milgram experiment as it later became known, consisted of mainly male participants where great care was taken to explain the intent of the study, which was ostensibly to explore the effects of punishment on learning.

One person is designated “Teacher” the other “Learner.” Lots are drawn and they take their required positions. The Learner is the subject and sits in an adjacent room while the participant as Teacher sits in on his chair in the other room next to a large electric shock generator consisting of thirty up-down toggle switches on its front with ascending levels of voltage from 15 to 450 across the face of it. (For reference 120 volts is approximately the voltage from a standard household socket).

The Experimenter then explains that when a switch is thrown lights go and a buzzer sounds; a needle swings on the voltmeter and the learner may scream in the next room. The “Teacher” blinks a few times and absorbs this uncomfortable fact. Meanwhile, the Learner has been strapped into a chair and a shock plate fastened onto his arm. He is carrying out a memory test no doubt oblivious about what is to come. The Teacher views all this through a glass pane. He is then asked to pose questions to the Learner through an intercom and if he gets it right he must move onto the next one – if wrong, he is required to administer a shock. The Teacher must throw the next switch in the sequence, the voltage stronger each time the Learner makes a mistake. There is a penalty for a wrong answer and the shock becomes more severe, moving closer to electrocution.

At 75 volts the Learner grunts and good naturedly laughs: “Whoah! Heh. That’s getting under my skin!”

The Teacher turns to the Experimenter and draws his attention to his response. What should he do?

“Please continue” is the calm reply.

At 105 volts the laughing has stopped and the Learner is red-faced and irritated. “OK. That’s uncomfortable guys …Tone it down please.”

Past 120 volts and the Learner is angry: “Hey, that really hurts! What the hell are you trying to do?!”

The Teacher turns to the Experimenter beseechingly and asks if he should continue.

He replies firmly: “Please continue.”

At 150 volts The Learner is struggling in the chair and livid with rage. “How dare you violate my rights! This is not what I signed up for! STOP IT! GET ME OUTTA HERE NOW!

What does the Teacher do?

“Please continue. For this experiment to be a success we require you to continue,” replies the Experimenter calmly. “He has to carry on until he has correctly memorised all the words. Please proceed.”

“But the shocks seem to be painful! I mean …. Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Not really. Continue please.”

“But – but – who’s responsible for that guy in there? What if he has a heart attack?”

I am responsible,” says the Experimenter sharply, “Now, will you please proceed with the assigned role that you have agreed to undertake?”

The Teacher swallows and turns back to the questions, anxious and intimidated.

At 270 volts the Learner is screaming himself hoarse. “LET ME OUT OF HERE! LEEEET MEEEE OUUUUT OF HEEEEEEEERE! He then dissolves into fits of hysterical crying punctuated by a few more screams, refusing to respond to any more questions.

The Teacher flips the 345 volts switch. There is silence. The Learner is either unconscious or dead. Despite this, the experimenter urges the Teacher to continue the procedure until the Learner has completed his memory assignment, despite the fact that the Learner is now an apparent corpse slumped in his chair in the adjacent room.

If the Teacher participant continues he might think the whole horrible affair will end there because there are no more switches. However, the Experimenter asks him to repeatedly flip the last switch once, twice and three times.

After this the experiment is at an end.

Stanley Milgram then enters the room. He explains to the participant who took on the role of the Teacher that the Experimenter was played by a hired hand, as was the Learner (who is no longer a corpse if it reached that far). He finds out that no electricity was involved. Relief all round. Laughing. Exciting discussion, and on some occasions, no doubt a lot of anger, accusations, hasty exits and frayed nerves.

Dr. Bob Altemeyer and his research on authoritarianism summarised the final and chilling result of the Milgram experiment.

Well, how many people would go all the way to 450 volts in that situation?

Milgram asked 39 psychiatrists and they all said NO ONE would. If you ask ordinary people the same question, they say only a pathological fringe element, perhaps one or two percent of the population, would go all the way. Certainly people know they themselves WOULD NOT, COULD NOT, EVER, NEVER do such a thing. So if you know that you would not, could not, that’s what almost everyone says.

Milgram ran 40 men, one at a time, in the situation I just described. All 40 shocked the Learner after he started grunting; all 40 gave the “household voltage” 120 volt shock. Thirty-four went past the 150 volt mark to 226 where the Learner demanded to be set free, which means 85% of the Teachers paid less attention to the Learner’s undeniable rights than they did to the Experimenter’s insistence that the study continue. Thereafter a few more people dropped out, one here and one there.

Altogether fifteen men got up the gumption to eventually tell the Experimenter, “No, I won’t.” But the other twenty-five men went to 450 volts and threw the switch over and over until the Experimenter told them to stop.

That is not NONE of them. That’s 62%. It’s not all of them, but it is MOST of them! [2]  

Subsequent experiments many years later have replicated those results. [3]

Milgram’s testing is hugely important in the context of our collective pre-disposition to please authority figures, despite violating our deepest moral principles. The desire to avoid conflict and to please the authority figure overrides our conscience. Undoubtedly, the effects of Western education regurgitating individuals shaped for a global economy divorced from values and emotional intelligence has played a huge part in that inculcation. (See: Learning is Fun?) But what does this say about our resistance to psychopaths in power? Moreover, by how much are the probabilities of our future reduced if we are willing to accept almost anything to please our authority figures? African-American social reformer Frederick Douglass described it in this way: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” This, after all is what we are really facing – our ability to defend against the gradual imposition of pathological infection, not just in expressions of authoritarianism but in all its various camouflaged guises.

When defence against the toxic effects of psychopathic authority begins to be challenged these same principles of self-preservation kick in and which have very deep roots going back to childhood imprinting. Thus it becomes easier to deceive ourselves and trust authority rather than take the more challenging road of listening to our conscience. If we don’t begin to rigorously question and re-evaluate our socio-economic mechanisms and institutional traditions then we will be the next in line to receive exactly what those who had the courage to stand up to authority suffered. The only way we can do this is to begin to look at our own relationship to not just the power structures within which we live and have our being, but by observing how this conformity leeches into our daily lives. In other words, how we process information and meaning. Together, we must learn to build the courage to examine our behaviour with others and how we may feed into the dynamics which ultimately serve the very realities we wish to avoid i.e. authoritarianism and psycho-spiritual inversions.

This is where willful blindness comes in.

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The harsh light of Truth can be astonishingly painful. How far we have drifted from a more authentic self will give an indication how much the outer world is shielded and filtered before it enters the soft-underbelly of our all too vulnerable personality. There’s a difference between having an innately hyper sensitive disposition and becoming habituated to denial. They are not mutually exclusive. But the latter is the trap which offers and easier life away from true growth. Change is, after all, necessary in order to be all we can be. But uncertainty means insecurity and disorientation, stress and fear – until we learn to embrace it.

Wilful blindness is a symptom of a culture divorced from meaning and locked on to survival often entirely unconscious of the fact of having soaked up the endless programming of the official narrative of our times: this is all there is – no alternatives are available. This state of injected non-being cuts across class and economic divisions though everyone will process it differently. It is chosen ignorance which we believe gives us safety and protection but in fact places us in great jeopardy.

Our present culture encourages conformity linked to fear, and the lowest instincts of the human condition so that there is a specific kind of “order.” Yet, what does this mean when the iniquities explored in this series which have been occurring for decades – sometimes centuries – have been an integral part of our world and operating with ever more impunity?

Is it just a matter of the Age of Information?

Despite a surge in awareness thanks to the internet and the rise of networking, rampant corruption, systemic and organised child abuse and state-sponsored terrorism continue unabated. Despite the so-called “revelations” from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden the surveillance state remains in place stronger than ever; The disparity between rich and the poor has widened and poverty and hunger reign for billions of people. This is an issue of power still in the hands of the few and who have dictated the structures of our societies thus our perceptions, to the extent we see it as normal rather than an expression of obvious pathology that has most of the population by the throat.

It is not a problem of money, logistics or politics – these are symptoms – but a psycho-spiritual blockage dictated by our own denial of reality – the deliberate blindness to facts.

You can call it ignorance, apathy, indifference or avoidance but we all bear the responsibility at different levels and in various periods of our lives, a chosen, conscious blindness which has fed into the pool of growing chaos. Psychopaths rely on it to achieve power and thrive on it once in their gilded thrones, whether at the board meeting or holding the Judge’s gavel. Our self-concept requires most of us to stay with the devil we know rather than seek alternatives. But it is a false economy. The more we restrict our vision the narrower our awareness becomes. The familiar and habitual is used as an antidote against chaos; a bubble of apparent protection even to the point where it becomes pathological. And the latter result now makes up the characteristics of Official Culture which operates as reinforcing model for Master and servant.

Nature has shown us how interconnected and fragile the biosphere truly is and our present technology has allowed us to mirror that complexity through social media and the wiring up of a virtual global brain. But that’s where it ends. We have merely used technological efficiency as a buffer and to perpetuate new forms of virtual reality. (As if we needed anymore!)  Philosopher Jacques Ellul viewed such a reliance in the following way: “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.” And it is this imposition of “efficiency” which has fused with our primitive desire for survival and comfort. We are now at a point where this blindness cannot go much further before we are collectively confronted with our accumulated personal shadows in spectacular ways.

Author Margaret Heffernan explored the idea of such conscious avoidance in her book: Wilful blindness: Why we Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011).  She quotes neurologist Robert Burton who likened the creation of neural networks in the brain as the formation of a riverbed: “The initial flow of water might be completely random – there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly creating path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.” This is how willful blindness develops and creates many rivers of least resistance which rewire the brain to accept and acquiesce, bit by bit. As Heffernan reminds us, the blindness grows out of the seemingly mundane, everyday decisions we make which continually reaffirm another layer of the bubble, safe and warm behind our respective picket fences of intellectual and emotional rationalisations. As Heffernan states: “… as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and certainty. We think we see more – even as the landscape shrinks.” [4] 

It is a frightening indication of how we are unconsciously encouraged to seek a limited view based on the addictive nature of Official Culture and its sometimes subtle forms of authoritarianism.

The brain becomes accustomed to insulation from nuggets of negativity which do not match with the idyll of the “create-your-own-reality” affirmation and the hard won ideal of a community of like-minded people, whether in academia or suburbia. This biological tool learns to filter out all and everything which signal distress and conflict so that only beliefs which conform to ease, comfort and calm will be accepted. But the brain also seeks to gain the maximum high when biased reasoning is found to make a match with those prepared rivers of belief. The reward circuits are shown to “light up” and the flow of “happy” chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin are released when there is a seeming “match” between belief and reality. Yet, it is the neurological riverbed running in the wrong direction, away from truth and objectivity into a subjective no-man’s land of hazards and dangers. The longer denials and ignorance reign supreme the more likely the mind will find itself, at some point, experiencing a serious cognitive dissonance or traumatic event as the mind and body short-circuits between the two poles of what is and what our rivers of warped perception have wished were so. This will either offer the opportunity to grow or die, sometimes literally.

Uncertainty = conflict = growth. Alternatively, the cultivation of denial / ignorance = “happiness” = familiarity = stasis.

Of course, it doesn’t mean we seek out conflict either (who wants to do that?) Only that challenging ourselves literally alters our whole mind-body chemistry. The development of new neurological networks and the parallel attempt to work on ourselves to release blocked “energy” from the unconscious, can only be achieved by deepening our knowledge base – without any kind of prejudice and without imposing any limitation on how knowledge for growth is positively gained. We are then not at the mercy of external forces reshaping our inner ecology and determining the parameters of our lives.

But it does mean looking into the abyss in order to understand. Challenging as this may be such a sincere move does ultimately provide protection leading to confidence in our ability to navigate through life without undue fear and fantasy. And if there is one thing that remains a timeless truism, if you believe that your very survival depends on the creation of a many-layered belief which may bear little connection to reality then such a facade – no matter how seemingly “normal” – will come crashing down, usually when you least expect it. Similarly, if a whole society is in denial having willingly accepted the lies and propaganda fed to it over decades, then the collective sense of self is likely to experience a massive collapse and the potential to change direction in favour of an authentic growth.

And this is where we find ourselves.

 


Notes

[1] pp. 398–413; Understanding behaviour in the Milgram obedience experiment: The role of personality, situations, and their interactions. Thomas Blass 1991 | doi:10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.398.
[2] http://www.evcforum.net/DataDropsite/TheAuthoritarians.pdf
[3] http://www.abcews.go.com/Primetime/story/?id=276516&page=1
[4] Introduction; Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan (2011)

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