Heroes and Monsters

A TED talk by Philip Zimbardo, most famously known for the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, about power and corruption. And power and redemption. Includes an overview of the Millgram experiment, for those unfamiliar with it. That one still terrifies the crap out of me.

This is about the power of institutions and how they affect behavior, and it has just as many implications about your behavior in the workplace, on the street, as it would if you were running the trains or overseeing the prisoners.

There are two bigs points in this one – it’s not the people you have to change: it’s the system and the basis of power. Power heirarchies encourage evil by allowing its perpetrators to either be anonymous or shift responsibility to someone in authority. If you’re looking for the root of evil, don’t look at the individual: look at the institution and what it allows and encourages the individual to do.

The second point, and most important because it’s the solution: is how the promotion of heroism is the antidote to the abuses of power. Heroes are deviants: they are always going against the herd. They act when others are passive. Heros question authority, heirarchy, power. They aren’t afraid to say, “This is wrong.”

And those are the sorts of people we need to celebrate and encourage; not abusers of power.

This is why it’s important to write good heroes. This is why people get so pissed off about misogyny in the comic book world in particular. If our fantasy heroes preach conformity and misogyny, what hope is there for real heroes?

Standing passively by while people commit abuses just makes you another member of the Millgram experiment. And if that’s true, how much of a step to the right is it, really, to turn you into a torturer at Abu Ghraib?

I think about this stuff all the time. It’s why I confronted the guys harrassing the girl at the bus stop in South Africa. It’s why I was the first one to get up when the guy on the train in Chicago went into a seizure, and it’s why I was the first one to notice the girl passing out on the train not long afterward. It’s why I confronted one of the guys at my last job about a sexist slap about the unfortunateness of having a girl, and it’s why I spoke up at my current job about an incident I observed as being an abuse of power.

Somebody has to be the first one to move. Somebody has to shake it up. And yeah, it’s really hard to do. But watching this stuff over and over again?

I’m reminded of why I do it.

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