The problem of good men, doing nothing

To understand how to deal with the Roman Catholic Church’s silence about paedophilia and other forms of abuse we need to look at experiments performed by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Milgram’s famous experiments were designed to understand how normal people could perpetrate abnormal acts such as those comitted in Nazi Germany.

The most relevant experiment was summed up by Raj Persaud in a review of Milgram’s biography in the BMJ:

Milgram found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects [who thought he was testing the link between punishment and learning], ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks—up to 450 volts—to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific, lab coated authority commanded them to, and despite the fact that the victim did nothing to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, a fact that was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. (My emphasis).

Many of Milgram’s experiments have been repeated. One interesting re-working of the experiment re-cast it as a Reality TV show and was reported by the BBC:

A disturbing French TV documentary has tried to demonstrate how well-meaning people can be manipulated into becoming torturers or even executioners.

The hugely controversial Game of Death … showed 80 people taking part in what they thought was a game show pilot. Before the show, they signed contracts agreeing to inflict electric shocks on other contestants. They were … asked to zap a man they believed was another contestant whenever he failed to answer a question correctly – with increasingly powerful shocks of up to 460 volts. …

Egged on by a glamorous presenter, cries of “punishment” from a studio audience and dramatic music, the overwhelming majority of the participants obeyed orders to continue delivering the shocks – despite the man’s screams of agony and pleas for them to stop…

Only 16 of the 80 participants stopped before the ultimate, potentially lethal shock.

In this case the experimenters had stripped out the back-story about the attempt to understand the mechanics of learning so the participants did not think they were acting for any kind of greater good.  This was social pressure pure and complex.

These findings are central to understanding the scandal welling up from within the Roman Catholic Church.

There are two separate outrages here.  Firstly there are the acts of abuse themselves, and we should remember we are not just talking about paedophilia, but also the bullying and abuse of children ‘cared for’ in by nuns in Church-run orphanages. And secondly there is the  systemic cover-up of these acts to protect the perpetrators.

The whole thing has been one giant Milgram experiment lasting centuries, and viewed in this light, we have to concede that although the cover-ups were evil, they were not necessarily the acts of evil men.  As Edmund Burke said:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

These experiments tell us not to be surprised that few in the church stood up and said “Enough’s enough; I am not willing to collude in this any longer”.   In fact it would have been surprising if anyone had: these are not college students or game-show contestants with little loyalty to those telling them to conform. These are people who have given their free will over to those they think of as their seniors and betters, whose world-view and entire careers are based on creating a reality out of  the notions of spiritual authority and clerical obedience.

The question, of course, is how to break the Church’s authority on this issue? How do we make it clear that there is no ethical dilemma, no weighing up of “the career of a good priest and a good man” against justice for the abused and broken victims? That paedophilia and covering up paedophilia are not merely sins to absolved under the seal of the confessional, they are also crimes to be tried and punished in the secular world.

Oddly, I think the red-tops have a place here. Screaming headlines about “Paedo-Priests” serve to crack open the tight grip the Church has assumed over defining what is “right” and “wrong”, and it is crucial that we break that sense of god-given authority within the church. The bishops thought they were better judges than the secular authorities of what was right and wrong. As a result church members  kept silent who looked to the bishops for leadership kept silent, like Milgram’s experimental subjects, because the bishops were indeed providing leadership. Once that grip is released and it is clear that society expects the Church to hand over its paedophiles for punishment, then the institutionalised dilemma of whether to protect the priest or the child goes away.

Besides which, those sort of headlines polarise the debate, and this is one of the few debates which requires less nuance and a lot more polarity.


Useful links:

BBC article about the French “Game Show” documentary (quoted above)

The Situationist – a good Social Sciences and Psychology Blog

Book:  “The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram” at Amazon

Raj Persaud’s review of the above in the BMJ (restricted access) (quoted above)

Wikipedia’s entry on Stanley Milgram

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9 responses to “The problem of good men, doing nothing

  1. I remember being astounded when first reading about the Milgram experiments in school.

    But in truth if you look at pretty much any organisational structure, particularly hierarchical ones, then you see this kind of thing happening all the time.

    Given the whole “absolute certainty” thang to Church has going it is unsurprising such things have been covered up in such an awful way.

  2. You know, every time my eccentricity gives me a pang of social worry, then I think of The Zapper Experiment. It’s one of the best reasons I’ve ever heard of not to conform.

    Whistles can often be scary things to blow: they’re piercing, and everyone looks at you. But nevertheless, I still struggle to entirely mentally account for the fact that quite so much abuse went unreported.

    Wise words, my dear, as always.

  3. This is serious stuff. Had it not been for this sort of blind colusion before and during the second world war, I would have a large family. As it is, when asked by healthcare workers if any particular causes of death run through my family, I can only come up with genocide.

    I am sure that you are right about the propensity of individuals to get numbed to the personal pain of hurting others — as doctors, we do this a bit ourselves. Groups with a shared ethos and a good measure of alcohol and/or fanaticism do likewise.

    This is why good corporate governance requires that boards include non-executive members who are sufficiently detached to be able to say “hold on a minute: that cannot be right”. The Catholic Church would be a lot stronger for having a few non-catholic advisers in key positions. Even the odd Jew perhaps?

    • >> when asked by healthcare workers if any particular causes of death run through my family, I can only come up with genocide.

      Yeouch. That’s almost poetry: it’s clever and sickening at the same time.

      The balance of outsiders and insiders is a tricky one, the outsiders have to be informed enough to know what to look out for, but after time they become insiders. I like the idea of Jews in the Vatican though.

    • SoRB I have now spent nearly an hour on YouTube listening to DarkSide of the moon done is various 8 Bit electronic devices…

      Deary me, I dont know whether to say “thanks” or curse you!

  4. No no! Make it stop!

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