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Why It’s Important to Know What You Stand For

Last month I finished reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The title may seem unrelated, as the book appears at first to mainly cover the Stanford Prison Experiment and what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison. After reading the book, it was actually (and terrifyingly) more relevant than ever after the death of George Floyd and the social upheaval in the aftermath. 

We all think it couldn’t happen here

That couldn’t happen to me. I would know how to act in a situation like that.

Yet we’ve been told in countless stories, books, movies, that regular, good people can participate in horrific situations anywhere. That it could happen to you. And that you could end up on the wrong side of history.

When you know what you believe in, you know when to stand up. You can see the subtle signs of manipulation that others may miss. What someone may say is the right thing, may ring a bell in your heart that it is the wrong thing altogether. 

“It is all done with words an images…The process begins with creating stereotyped conceptions of the other, dehumanized perceptions of the other, the other as worthless, the other as all-powerful…the other as a fundamental threat to our cherished values and beliefs. With public fear notched up and the enemy threat imminent, reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors.”

I think we’ve all experienced this in some way or another

 Quietly ignoring an offensive relative at the dinner table so that you don’t cause any discomfort for the family. Brushing off a comment at work that just didn’t sit right with you, and maybe others, but you don’t want to confront a person in a position of power. Letting a stranger’s actions go unnoticed  because you fear that if you say something your life could be in danger.

“The primary simple lesson the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches is that situations matter. Social Situations can have more profound effects on the behaviour and mental functioning of individuals, groups, and national leaders than we might believe possible. Some situations exert such powerful influence over us that we can be lead to behave in ways we would not, could not, predict was possible in advance.”

What can seem like a benign situation can transform over time into an act of oppression or worse.

The systematic genocide of Jewish people and other marginalized groups was not started as soon as Hitler came into power. It was a very subtle brainwashing over time – they portrayed Jews as villains in movies, they relocated them to ghettos outside of the “regular” population, it became socially undesirable to be friends with them or shop in their stores. And from there it escalated and millions of people went along with one of the most horrific acts in history.

“Framing the genocide of the Jews as the “Final Solution” served a dual psychological purpose: “It stood for mass murder without sounding or feeling like it and it kept the focus primarily on problem solving.”

There is a degree in which the social construct of reality makes sense

Laws and ideas put in place to protect the vulnerable, to make sure society stays as fair as possible, to stop discrimination or hurting others. But there is a line that is sometimes easily crossed that we need to be aware of. Just because many people in a society say that something makes sense and that we should do it – doesn’t mean that’s true. Just because someone is in a position of authority, doesn’t mean they are correct. And just because we’ve always done something one way, doesn’t mean it’s ok and it should stay that way.

In many cultures and historical periods all over the world, there have been times of blind obedience to authority. Even in Western culture, even in this present day, where we believe that we have the individuality and freedom to think our own thoughts and make our own decisions – we still find ourselves falling into this same thought pattern. Remember, “I was just doing what I was told,” was a claim often said by Nazis but did not remove their fault for their actions.

“The need to be accepted…is so powerful that we are primed to conform to even the most foolish and outlandish behaviours that strangers tell us is the right way to act.”

Listening to others, weighing our options, and thinking for yourself should be something we work at every day. Automatically accepting other people’s definition of a social situation and their norms can lead us into blind obedience. We must take the risk of challenging what we think is not right. We must be okay with being wrong and not knowing something.

“It’s only becoming aware of our vulnerability to social pressure that we can begin to build resistance to conformity when it is not in our best interest to yield to the mentality of the herd.”

So take the time when you can, perhaps during this solitary period being at home during the pandemic – or while you eat your breakfast before work – or during your commute or trip to wherever you’re going, and think about what is important to you. What do you believe in? Are you willing to stand up for it? 

Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Don’t be afraid of hard conversations. Don’t be afraid to stand up and say, “This is wrong and I want to change this.”

“If a minority can win adherents to their side even when they are wrong, there is hope for a minority with a valid cause. In society, the majority tends to be the defender of the status quo, while the force for innovation and change comes from the minority members or individuals either dissatisfied with the current system or able to visualize new and creative alternative ways of dealing with current problems.”

All quotes in this post are from Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

What do you believe in?

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