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Stampeding to the Slaughterhouse
The new film “Compliance” is based on real-life events in which a man posing as a police officer on the telephone caused Louise Ogborn, an 18-year-old girl, to be subjected to increasing amounts of cruelty and sadism, culminating in a sexual assault. The hoax caller, David Stewart, was a prison guard who called a McDonald’s restaurant where Ms. Ogborn was working, and manipulated the manager to committing the assault by insisting it was necessary to aid an official police investigation into petty crimes.
Attorney Steve Romines of Louisville, who gained an acquittal for David Stewart (the hoax caller) said he will skip the movie, because the trailer alone made him uncomfortable.
That particular episode at the McDonald’s restaurant was but one of a series of similar and almost always successful hoaxes over the course of at least 10 years, in which a man on the telephone pretending to be a police officer easily manipulated restaurant employees into obeying warped directives.
Columnist Glenn Greenwald makes some observations on this. I will paraphrase his comments, and mix in some of my own.
“Compliance” illustrates how easily people are talked into serving authority figures. The subject was explored 50 years ago by the famous experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which an authority figure in a lab coat instructed participants to deliver what they were told were increasingly severe electric shocks to someone in another room, whom they could hear but not see. Even as the screams became louder and more agonizing, two-thirds of the participants delivered the increased electric shocks until the screams stopped – presumably because the victim had died.
The Milgram experiment demonstrated people's reluctance to confront those who abuse power. The masses obey out of fear, or out of a desire to be accepted, or appear co-operative – even when acting against their own interests.
Trusting authority is easier and more convenient than questioning it. We can't be on guard all the time, so in order to have a pleasant life, we want to be able to trust that people are who they say they are. If we questioned everything we heard, then we would never get anything done. It's more efficient to follow a chosen leader and walk in lock step with a chosen tribe.
Unfortunately this leads to wartime atrocities. It also leads to unthinking partisan allegiance, plus numerous frauds, from Saddam's WMDs to Obama's fake birth certificate, to Romney's failure to pay taxes for 10 years, to the destruction of Libya and Syria. People defend evidence-free claims, because the alternative means trading the calm of certainty for the anxiety of doubt.
This authoritarian desire to worship institutions and leaders resides at the core of so many of our political conflicts. In 2006, Canadian psychology professor Bob Altemeyer published a book titled “The Authoritarians,” which examines how this manifests in the right-wing political context.
Altemeyer’s book can be read here for free (in .pdf format).
Meanwhile institutions such as universities, federal courts, and human rights organizations that traditionally functioned as checks on the blind obedience to authority, have now gone over to power’s side. They changed from checks on power into advancers of power, thereby changing culture from the rule of law to the rule of money, gangsters and propaganda.
Most people are too busy with their lives to question prevailing orthodoxies and the authorities propagating them. This lets the liars thrive without opposition, no matter how false and corrupted they may be.
Further, people tend to see oppression and tyranny in faraway places, while denying that it exists at home. ("How dare you compare my country to Tyranny X. We're free and they aren’t. So let’s bomb them.”)
In part that is explained by the way in which desire shapes perception. We want to believe that oppression only happens elsewhere, so that we feel better about our own situation. (“I'm free, unlike those slobs in those other places. So let’s bomb them.”)
Such thinking also relieves us of the obligation to act. We need not question oppression, since oppression does not exist. (Those who do not move do not notice their chains.)
In the USA, people are detained at airports and have their laptops seized with no warrants because of the films they make or the political activism they engage in. They are subjected to mass, invasive state surveillance despite no evidence of wrongdoing. They are prosecuted and imprisoned for decades – or executed without due process – for expressing political and religious views deemed dangerous by the government.
Of course, people who obey authority have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who question authority. The conformists refuse to believe that opression exists. At a special screening of “Compliance” this week in New York, a woman stood up and yelled, “Give me a fucking break!” and walked out, followed by ten other moviegoers.
Another factor is that almost everyone clings to his own pet orthodoxy, while calling other orthodoxies nonsense. Even people who do not believe the holo-hoax still believe that Hitler was the “most evil man who ever lived.” Even people who never believed the lies about Iraqi WMDs still believe the lies about Qaddafi and Assad. Even people who believe that 9-11 was an inside job still believe that Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011. Even people who believe none of these lies still believe that U.S. federal finances are the same as a private individual’s finances. And so on.
One reason for this is that most people want to be deceived. Fairy tales make their lives seem easier. And the more their obedience to power causes them to live in poverty, the more they obey power, and believe in fairy tales -- until they actually run out of food, which is the trigger for most revolutions.
Check out the movie trailer for "Compliance."
See this 40-second clip from the movie “Sin City.”
“Power doesn’t come from a badge or a gun. Power comes from a lie. Lying big and getting the whole damn world to play along with you. Once you have people agreeing with what they know in their hearts isn’t true, you’ve got ‘em by the balls!”