The Devil Made Me Do It

A response to Colin Falconer

Historical author Colin Falconer brought up interesting yet disturbing points in his November 13 blog post, “For Evil to Triumph.”

Colin comments on the recent Men’s Health article by Bill Phillips, “Why Joe Paterno Didn’t Call the Police,” about alleged child abuse at Penn State. The article draws parallels between the failure of people to report the alleged abuse and the controversial psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1961.

As Colin describes:

“[Milgram’s] tests were designed to measure the willingness of subjects to obey an authority figure who told them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.

“[This] was inspired by [Milgram’s] curiosity about how millions of people in Nazi Germany could go along with horrors of the Holocaust, even when it violated their deepest moral beliefs.

“A volunteer was given the role of teacher, and separated from the learner; they could communicate but could not see each other. The ‘teacher’ had a list of word pairs to teach the ‘learner’. If the answer was incorrect, the ‘teacher’ would administer a shock to the ‘learner’, with the voltage increasing in 15 volt increments for each wrong answer.

“The ‘learner’ was an actor; but the ‘teacher’ did not know this. Some test subjects paused at 135 volts and began to question the purpose of the experiment. Though clearly uncomfortable about it, most continued after being assured that it was necessary and that they would not be held responsible for the outcome.

“How many continued to the final, potentially lethal 450-volt shock?… 26 out of 40. Even with their ears ringing with the screams of their ‘victims’, authority won over. They listened to the man in the white coat before they listened to their own inner voice. Ordinary people, good people, thus became agents in immoral and destructive behaviour.”

Phillips notes that “humans are programmed to not question authority…. And men are even less likely to rat out an authority figure when that person is also a mentor.”

Colin suggests, “It seems to me that as human beings we all have a higher authority that we surrender our scruples to.”

My question is, why surrender?

My question is, were these people good?

Ordinary, maybe. Good… maybe not so much.

They may never have been in a situation like this. It was unfamiliar, uncomfortable. The guy in the white coat assured them nothing was wrong.

Things like this didn’t happen in their normal reality. They’d entered an alternate reality, a sort of fairy tale. The guy in the white coat would protect them through this Twilight Zone.

Under these circumstances, I disagree that their “inner voice” told them to stop. I believe it may have told them it was fine to murder.

Those 26 of 40 may have felt they could distance themselves from the result of their action. They could do this by hiding behind someone else. In return, they granted that someone “authority” over them.

By sleight of mind, responsibility could have been mentally transferred to the leader. The authority figure could have become a buffer zone between themselves and the reality of their decisions and actions.

“Obeying” was what the leader received in return. The leader had “power”—to do what? To set up the rules of the fairy tale. And once reality exploded the fairy tale, the result was the leader’s “fault.”

In reality, outside the fairy tale, wasn’t this what happened instead: the followers sacrificed the authority figure to the action they themselves decided to take.

That sort of authority figure is not a leader.

In circumstances like this, the person who’s set up as the authority figure is nothing but a scapegoat.

By S.J. Driscoll

13 thoughts on “The Devil Made Me Do It

  1. The problem with evil is to take the first step. My mother knew that when the Nazi blitkrieg came to Vilnius LIthuania, as a teacher of children she would be forced to choose. Teachers had swear allegience to teaching the master race according to Nazi rules, or else. She escaped their clutches with the tanks and troops almost upon them as she walke across Europe with my dad to escape taking that first step. If you accept the premise that electric shocks are acceptable, then you took the first step. Too many people are willing to just take the first step to avoid an ugly truth. Evil is real, and as much as I laughed with Flip Wilson, we know the devil never makes anyone do anything. People choose to do the devil’s work.

  2. Thanks, Marcy. It took quite a few drafts to tone this post down. The first drafts were fiery… which wouldn’t have accomplished much, would it?

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  4. I have always tried to own my own actions and decisions and to live as gracefully as possible with the fall out of those decisions. No matter what happens, the devil doesn’t make me do it and no priest or god can ever take it away. Wish I had been involved with that experiment.

  5. Good points. I’m weird, and you might be, too. 🙂
    When were the good old days, anyway, Louise? Every era has its horrendous challenges.

  6. Great post Sally and something we all have to think about. Ironically if you’re one of the people who refuses, you are often considered ‘weird’ or not a team player or…something else not very flattering.

    I often wonder if this is part of the social consciousness today. Are the huge splits in our income levels (with the rich getting richer and the rest of us not so much) a result of this idea that we generally will do what we’re told because we’re told to do it.

    Interesting times we live in. Again, thanks for food for thought.

  7. Wow Sally, quite a serious subject, but then again it IS a serious subject. I applaude you for taking it on.

    Uh, yeah, we pretty much need to take responsibility for our own actions. We are all accountable for what we do. 🙂

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