September 2007: Editorial

Conformity and dissent
September 1, 2007

Those of us who have the courage to challenge the conventional “wisdom”--which today takes the form of neoliberalism--will sometimes find the path of dissent to be a rocky one. We face ridicule, scorn, hostility. We may be socially ostracized. We may even find that our beliefs hinder us financially or limit our career options.

The pressure to conform and join with the majority is unrelenting. It’s natural to want to be popular, to be “one of the gang,” to fit in, to be accepted. Most people are culturally predisposed to believe what they’re told by their leaders, and to behave accordingly.

Back in the 1960s, a Yale University professor, Stanley Milgram, conducted tests to find out how far ordinary people would go to please someone in authority. He recruited participants through a newspaper ad for “an experiment on learning and memory,” offering them $4.50 for one hour’s work. The experiment concerned the use of punishment on memory, with a “learner” being strapped into an electric chair and given a jolt every time he answered a question incorrectly. The shocks were administered by pulling switches delivering from 15 to 450 volts, with labels that described the effects as ranging from “mild” to “severe” to “extreme” pain.

After the “learner” was strapped in, the participant, acting as the “teacher,” was given a list of questions to ask, and instructed to increase the shock voltage every time the learner gave a wrong answer. (The learner was really an actor who deliberately answered most questions incorrectly.) At 75 volts, the learner would begin to grunt with pain, at 120 he would cry out, at 270 volts he would scream, and at more than 300 he would beg to be released.

What Milgram wanted to find out was what proportion of normal people would continue administering shocks up to the most severe and agonizing voltage. There was no compulsion on the volunteer “teachers” to continue--just the professor’s assurance that the experiment had been approved by the government and, to be valid, required the “teacher” to keep raising the shock voltage no matter how much pain the learner had to endure. “If anything goes wrong, the government will take the responsibility,” the professor promised them.

After the experiment, before he released his results, Milgram asked a group of psychiatrists what proportion of his volunteers they thought would deliver the most extreme--and potentially lethal--shocks. They thought that only one person in a thousand--a small psychotic minority--would do so. The actual proportion was 65%.

The lesson of Milgram’s experiment is that we must beware of evil belief systems more than we must beware of evil people. Most of us have the latent capacity to behave immorally or unjustly if that kind of behaviour is encouraged or even condoned by the predominant ideology. In a society that extols competition and greed, tolerates poverty and inequality, and ignores the ravaging of the environment, is it surprising that 65% or more of the population are willing participants? Not when they are told by their political, business, and media élites that this kind of society is normal, or even ideal. Given these assurances, they suppress their moral misgivings and dutifully conform.

Conformity is the dark side of human nature. It’s natural to want to be accepted, and thus to take our lead from the majority, to act as they act, to speak as they speak, to remain silent when they remain silent.

To dissent from the majority, to refuse to be silent, to speak out against injustice, to strive for a sane and sustainable and egalitarian world--that is the more difficult road by far. But for anyone with a social conscience, it is the only course to take--the only hope for the future, the only way of freeing more of our fellow citizens from their padded cells of conformity.