My daughter and I enjoy watching movies based on true stories. Saturday evening, February 2, we flip through Netflix in search of one. Nicole doesn’t express any preferences, so I chose one released in 2015 that looks interesting … Experimenter. (It has since been removed from Netflix and is on Amazon Prime)
The story begins in July 1961, the month I celebrate my 19th birthday … the summer between my first and second year of college. The trial before a special tribunal of the Jerusalem District Court for Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann, enters its third month.
Yale University social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, tries to come to terms with the Holocaust. He devises a series of tests to measure the willingness of ordinary people to override their conscience and obey an authority figure instructing them to inflict pain on others.
The experiment attempts to answer the question, “Could it be that Eichmann was just following orders? Could it be that the millions of others caught up in the Holocaust were just following orders? Were they all accomplices?”
While Nicole dozes, I find myself riveted and squirming. What would I do? Would my good-girl, perfectionist, prone-to-people-pleasing, desiring-to-fit-in, conflict- avoidant personality follow orders?
All but one ordinary person depicted in the film does, even though reluctant. Sixty-five percent follow orders to the point of possibly inflicting death. This well-known-to-sociologists experiment has been repeated many times around the globe with fairly consistent results.
While watching the movie, I keep thinking about a book I recently finished … a book that cites Milgram’s study.
Sally Kohn, a former Fox commentator now on CNN, begins with an example of her bullying behavior. She then draws on the following resources to understand her own hate as well as the polarization in our country and around the world:
- human personality research
- philosophical understandings
She contacts the people who call her derogatory names on Twitter and finds they are ordinary people who hold a grossly simplified view about who she is based on her ideas and identities. Her exchanges with them reveal that they succumb to
- the universal propensity to “otherwise” those who are different, sometimes vilifying them; and
- the tendency we all have to justify our own hurtful behavior by the situation or context while seeing others hurtful behavior as an unjustifiable infliction of pain.
She deepens her research by interviewing and spending time with
- a former terrorist
- an ex-white supremacist
- survivors of the Rwandan genocide
What stays with me most as I watch Experimenter are Kohn’s conversations with Rwandan genocide survivors. I find tragic and horrific their accounts of Hutu civilians convinced by authorities that hacking their Tutsi neighbors to death with machetes was the right thing to do… or killing close friends … or even murdering their Tutsi husbands or wives.
Over a course of only 100 days, approximately 800,000 Tutsi’s are slaughtered … 8000 a day. Others are raped, maimed, and/or displaced. Ordinary people look the other way or actively, and sometimes enthusiastically, participate.
The questions haunt me … What would I do? Would my good-girl, perfectionist, prone-to-people-pleasing, desiring-to-fit-in, conflict-avoidant personality follow orders?
Reading this book … watching that movie … confirm for me the importance of the volunteer work I’m currently doing … serving as a Better Angels moderator to help people on each side of the political spectrum understand each other and find common ground. These moderator skills are ones I used in my professional life to facilitate understanding between divided couples and families. It seems a perfect fit for me.
Wednesday evening, February 6, nine guests gather in my living room to be introduced to Better Angels. In total, I invited an equal number of liberals and conservatives. Only liberals accept my invitation. It’s a beginning.
- We introduce ourselves,
- Share our thoughts about what contributes to the polarization in our country,
- grab snacks, and
- listen to what Better Angels is doing across the country to help conservatives and liberals better understand each other and find common ground.
Then we view the first Better Angels State of the Union address delivered by BA President, David Blankenhorn and enter into a spirited discussion about
- what stood out for us
- our experiences interacting with people, some of whom we love deeply, who think differently than we do
- how hard it is
- successes we’ve experienced bridging the divide
We reaffirm the importance of communicating with respect, especially when expressing disagreement. Some of us remember a day when citizens in our country did – when Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch were close friends … when husbands and wives cancelled each other’s vote … and it was no big deal.
One of the participants lives in a neighborhood where liberals and conservatives already work on developing community across the divide. She asks me to come do an introduction to Better Angels in her living room. I hope to have an opportunity to do that.
The next morning I receive an email from another of the participants. She shares her response to a previous email from her conservative brother. She includes a description of our gathering and gives him the links to Better Angels. He responds with a copy of an email he sent to 100 conservatives with whom he communicates regularly. He tells them about his liberal sister’s email and passes on the link to the Better Angels SOTU address, saying “I think it’s excellent.” Her thoughtfulness and his response give me hope.
Another participant emails the group two days later seeking help with how to respond to an email from a conservative family member. The group responds with suggestions. She thanks us for helping her get clear about how to proceed while maintaining the connection she values. This is hard work and it takes a village to change ingrained reactivity.
God forbid that I am ever put in the position of being ordered to kill anyone. The peoples in Germany, the land of many of my ancestors, and Rwanda never imagined that it could happen to them. However, conflict resolution experts working overseas in war torn countries see similar warning signs of social distress in the USA. They see a need to use right here in their own country the same skills they utilize to help survivors of war live together again in peace.
And so I am convinced that my involvement in Better Angels is one thing I can do to counter the divisive forces weighing on us in today’s world … one thing this good-girl, perfectionist, prone-to-people-pleasing, desiring-to-fit-in, conflict-avoidant personality can do to fortify myself and be prepared … just in case.
After all, I am not so different from the ordinary people in Milgram’s study … the ordinary citizens of Rwanda.
Titles perplex me … suggestions please
What title would you give this blog post?
What thoughts do you have about what you’ve just read?
What change, if any, do you see yourself needing to make?