Monday, March 19, 2018

The Secret Agent

In a piece entitled "Tuskegee Truth Teller" (American Scholar, Winter 2018), Carl Elliot describes a notorious scandal in which "hundreds of poor black men with syphilis" were lured "into an experiment in which they would receive no treatment for a potentially deadely disease." Elliot later introduces a famous figure from the history of social psychology in commenting on the complicity involved in this medical scandal. “Milgram called this surrender of autonomy the ‘agentic state.’” Stanley Milgram’s Yale experiment with authority has become like the social butterfly who pops up at every party in town. There are certain concepts and poetic phrases that you can’t get away from. Yeats’ “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” is one. Keats's "negative capability" is another. However, ‘agentic state’ may be a new one for even those who are familiar with that famous moment  where the participants in an experiment didn’t realize they were the actual subjects. If you remember the idea was that volunteers sitting behind a glass window were asked to apply increasingly large amounts of electric current to actors who made it look like they were in pain. In fact, there was no current. This particular experiment would seem to have at least partially accounted for the claim of many Hitler henchman that they were merely following orders. Elliot’s piece cites the Manchurian Candidate as another, albeit even more extreme case, of such programming in which the subject was turned into a kind of zombie. But the problem, in some ways, is stubborn and hard to avoid. Even when you're consciously resisting authority (by being reactive), aren't you still following orders?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.