The Causes of Human Rights Violations (21): Hate is Just a Word Away

It’s shouldn’t be surprising that there are so many human rights violations. Psychologists have shown how easy it is to induce cruelty, prejudice and hate. There’s for example the famous Milgram experiment. People seem to be very obedient to authority figures, even if they are told to be cruel to other people (giving them electric shocks in this case; the shocks were fake but the subjects didn’t know that). Milgram’s test suggested that the millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were violent and cruel because they were following orders. Authority made them do things that violated their deepest moral beliefs. If you see how much pain people are willing to inflict on another person they don’t even know, simply because they are ordered to by an experimental scientist, you can imagine how easy it is for real authority figures to “convince” them. Which doesn’t mean that ordinary perpetrators of genocide or other acts of cruelty are guiltless tools of central command.

(The Milgram experiment was recently “reproduced” in a game show on television).

A similar experiment is the Hofling hospital experiment. Nurses were ordered by unknown doctors to administer what could have been a dangerous dose of a (fictional) drug to their patients. In spite of official guidelines forbidding administration in such circumstances, Hofling found that 21 out of the 22 nurses would have given the patient an overdose of medicine, even though they were aware of the dangers.

Then there are the Asch conformity experiments. One subject and a series of fake subjects were asked a variety of questions about an image containing lines, such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line is longer than the other, which lines are the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The fake subjects always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses. You wouldn’t expect a majority of people to conform to something obviously wrong, such as “line A is longer than line B” when it’s clear to the eye that the opposite is the case. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing such an incorrect answer, many participants also provided incorrect responses. This kind of group pressure and tendency to conform can explain mob violence and government organized genocide.

In the Stanford prison experiment, also called the Zimbardo experiment, people were selected to play the roles of guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what was expected. The guards became authoritarian and effected draconian, sadistic and abusive measures which were even accepted by the suffering prisoners.

And, finally, there is the Third Wave experiment demonstrating the appeal of fascism for ordinary people.

These social psychology experiments show that government efforts to mandate and enforce cruelty, prejudice, racism, hate and even genocide fall on fertile grounds. Human nature’s dark side seems to lurk just below the surface, ready to come out, and merely awaiting the wink of the boss or the group. A negative dialectic quickly settles in between government prejudice and private prejudice.


4 thoughts on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (21): Hate is Just a Word Away

  1. Hi Filip,

    Your blog is excellent, thankyou for this. Could you tell us a little about how you came to be a philosophy phd and work in statistics? I am an internet developer and have taken a break from work to study philosophy and human rights. I am very much interested in hearing about how you have ended up doing quantitative work as well as pursuing philosophy.

    1. Lee, quite accidentally really. I needed an income during my phd work, and there wasn’t a place immediately available at university. So I took a “temporary” job in our national statistical office, and I’m still there.

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