Respect doesn’t wear
Respect doesn’t opt
for role-playing detachment.
Respect doesn’t punish
because it can.
Respect doesn’t abuse,
accuse or allege.
Respect doesn’t start with
fear, hatred or suspicion.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from 14th – 20th of August 1971. It was supposed to have a longer duration, but it had to be aborted due to the extreme level of behaviour taking place.
Of the twenty-four participants, twelve were assigned to be ‘guards’ by the simple act of tossing a coin to see whether each person would be a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’. One of the key components of the ‘guards’ uniform was the then popular police custom of wearing mirrored sunglasses, which prevented anyone from seeing their eyes. Philip Zimbardo saw these reflective glasses as part of the process of creating what he termed de-individuation: a social psychological concept whereby the individual losses self-awareness in group situations. In this instance, the ‘guard’ becomes the role they are assigned rather than being themselves, an autonomous human individual with their own personality and behavioural characteristics.
In the middle of the first night, at 2.30am, the new shift of ‘guards’ woke the ‘prisoners’ with loud shrieking whistles to perform the count, in what swiftly became a control ritual to be implemented at any time.
A flash point erupted, on the second day, when one ‘prisoner’ had his bedclothes thrown onto the floor by a ‘guard’ who said that his bed was a mess. The ‘prisoner,’ screaming, lunged at the ‘guard’. The ‘guard’ pushed the ‘prisoner’ off and whilst punching him in the chest called for reinforcements due to the ‘emergency’ in Cell 2.
By the fourth day the ‘guards’ were well into a routine of punishment. As one of them dished out the now standard slow press-ups to one of the ‘prisoners’ he even went so far as to put his foot in-between the ‘prisoner’s’ shoulder blades and stepped hard on the down cycle of the press-up. In his write-up of the experiment, Zimbardo noted he had seen drawings of the guards at Auschwitz doing exactly the same thing.
In the summer of 1692, an extraordinary sequence of events led to twenty people being executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Another four to thirteen, the records are unclear, died in prison before their execution date for the same ‘crime’.
Arthur Miller, after considerable research, wrote The Crucible as a dramatic reconstruction of these appalling events. Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, prevalent at the time in the United States, Miller hit upon the perfect vehicle to warn his society of Senator Joe’s dangerous practice of making unfair accusations which turn into prejudiced allegations.
The plot of The Crucible hinges upon a group of girls, aged eleven to seventeen, caught dancing in the woods with Reverend Parris’ slave-girl, Tituba. The problem being that Tituba was seen to be waving her arms over an open fire, possibly incanting and some of the girls were naked as they danced. From the moment of their discovery a spiral of accusation, suspicion, revenge, land-grabbing and a battle between principles and self-preservation emerges. The religious powers that be, instead of calming the situation, drove the whole community into the now infamous Catch-22 situation: confess to witchcraft or be executed. In their eyes, of course, this meant being damned to an eternity in hell after, presumably, being driven from their home as a witch, or instant death. A choice that shows the pernicious power of accusation.
Miller saw that in such climates, political opposition starts to take on an ‘inhumane overlay’ which for the dominant power justifies the rejection of all normal modes of civilized discourse. When fuelled by authority, the grip of dehumanisation infects and runs rampant like a plague.
Consequently, when the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution from their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness. Hopefully, then human dignity will not be pushed face down in the mud.