Understanding how good people turn evil. This is the name of a book written by Professor Philip Zimbardo. In 1971, this Stanford University professor of psychology created an experiment where 24 college students were assigned roles at a makeshift jail on the university campus. The students were paid $15 per day for their participation. The students went through a battery of testing to assure sure they evaluated psychologically as average or slightly better. Half the students were randomly selected to play the role of prison guards while the other half played the role of prisoners. The experiment was scheduled to run for two weeks. But by day two, the role playing guards were going far beyond simply keeping the prisoners behind bars. By day six the experiment had to be terminated.
In order to develop as much realism as possible the experiment took place in the basement of the offices at City Hall. The normal doors to the offices were removed and replaced with doors with bars to augment the realism. The students assigned the role of prisoners were stripped of their clothing and given gowns with an identification number on their chest. The students assigned as guards were given a typical prison guard uniform of kakis, a billy club, and reflective sun glasses. Professor Zimbardo acted as the superintendent of the makeshift prison. Working in 8 hour shifts the guards would go home at the end of each day and come back the next ready to inflict more punishment and extract more control. The students acting as prisoners were kept on site 24 hours a day in their prison role.
What happened was a remarkable revelation of the human psychological condition. As the prison guards, students were consumed with control. Although their official job was to maintain prisoners, the students acting as guards quickly transformed themselves into the epitome of authoritarian control. The guards assumed a role of domination inflicting dehumanizing punishment of the students pretending to be prisoners. At night the prisoners were awoken every two hours to perform menial tasks such as pushups at the whims of the guards. The guards used tactics at their disposal to absorb more power from the prisoners while the prisoners did their best to resist having their power stripped away.
Professor Zimbardo concluded that the ultimate evil of prison is the focus on control, dominance, and mastery. Whatever humanity guards may have as individuals outside of their work environment dissolves when they step through the door to maintain their charges. Prisoners are no longer seen as human beings, brothers and sisters. The prisoner is reduced to the status of lower animals; less than human. Guards have to remain impersonal and distant because their goal is to treat people in ways that they would never treat another human being.
The study also revealed the anonymity factor. A guard can always claim they are not ultimately responsible because they were operating under orders from their superiors. Superiors can claim no responsibility because they never actually ordered the dehumanization of the prisoners. Indeed, prison management need do little more than to establish the environment and/or conditions for guards to manage prisoners. In this atmosphere, with little supervision, guards and prisoners will ultimately fall into their roles.
Let us make a few adjustments to this experiment to broaden the implications a bit. Instead of prisoners we will have enslaved Africans. Instead of guards we will have overseers. Instead of a superintendent, we will have a plantation owner. Instead of eight hour shifts we will have a lifetime of dehumanization, humiliation, subjugation, and abuse. In just a few days an experiment was able to reveal that the ultimate evil of prison was the focus on control, dominance, and master of a few prisoners. How does this evil compare to the ultimate evil of the enslavement of an entire race of people for generations?
When the students that played the prisoners of this Stanford University experiment were interviewed a few weeks after it was terminated, the students described their mental state as loosing their identity. They began to stop associating with the person they were when they entered the prison. They began to develop a separate persona known simply by their corresponding identification number. This happened in the span of less than a single week.
Now let us apply this type of psychological damage to the plight of an entire race of people whose identity, heritage, culture, family, home, dignity, language, and spirituality was ripped away from them. Imagine being an African who was no longer allowed to refer to his self or her self by anything they could have comprehend. What psychological damage could have been done to an entire race of people? These people weren’t dehumanized because they had to do pushups every two hours through the night. These people were identified as less than human by an entire culture, the American society.
None of the students acting as prisoners had to go through the humiliation of being sold like an animal. None of these students had to watch as their family was sold away like so much luggage. None of these students were whipped within an inch of their life. None of these students were denied an education. We know for a fact that they were pursuing college degrees. None of these students worked from sunup to sundown as beast of burden. None of these students were rapped.
So how would a wickedness that employed the tactics of slavery, fueled by racial hatred, and perpetuated for generations rate on the ultimate evil yardstick?