eThoughts : October 1, 2011: Badges, Prison Stripes, and Other Defining Garb

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Sometime in the early 1970s, Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University ran an experiment called the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was terminated after about one week.

I am going to take the idea and run with it, though I’m not the first and though drawing such inferences as I am doing (and others have) can legitimately be considered inappropriate.

Here was the basic deal in Zimbardo’s experiment: Subjects were either assigned roles as guards or as prisoners. Some context was added to make the division of guards and prisoners more realistic such as a “jail” and “uniforms.”

The experiment went strange when these subjects (all of whom had been psychologically screened for psychological problems—as in to eliminate those folks) really got into their roles. As a result, it became guards versus prisoners and trouble ensued.

Okay—in hindsight, it would seem that such trouble might be expected. Who likes to be a prisoner, a being subjected to very narrow limitations and whose actions can be questioned by those who have “earned” the right to be their “guards”?

Here comes the unabashed inferences: Look at what kind of society we have. Have you noticed how it is filled with such hierarchies along with the context that heightens those differences between each other?

Let’s start with law enforcement. Enforcing the laws of the land is a sound idea, right? I agree. Just like Zimbardo’s study, the system was not set up to have anyone reign over another. And there are checks and balances. But, like Zimbardo’s study, things can and do go amok. I don’t have a badge and a gun. I don’t have a robe and a gavel. I’ve got citizen garb, they’ve got authority garb. Ahh, you say (yep, I’ve been here before in these written musings), don’t do anything wrong and a citizen has nothing to worry about. Bullshit. If you believe that, you’ve got your head in a bucket and what you think is objective reality is merely your naïve (stupid?) voice reverberating around the inside of that bucket. Even law-abiding citizens have to watch out for the badges, guns, and gavels.

Okay, so what can citizens do? We’ve got lawyers to help, right? Lawyers can and do help. However, lawyers cost money. Besides, lawyer garb is its own kind of authority. In any case, I’m suggesting we cannot have a system that perpetuates, however inadvertently, an us-and-them organization—that’s bad for all of us. Okay, by way of a small example, let’s look at non-violent crimes (think traffic stops, etc.). How about a boatload more warnings/information before citations? Put those warnings in the system. If a citizen ignores those warnings—maybe this is where three-strikes can really work—there is a fine and a hefty one. Can’t pay it, even in payments? Then the errant citizen does necessary work, like clean-ups, etc. In fact, we likely need a lot more of this kind of system anyway. It costs a fortune to intern folks for non-violent crimes and it exposes them to a stint in crime university besides.

How about Wall Street garb versus Main Street garb? This one is a bit tough because the uniforms are not so uniform—how does one tell who’s whom? The answer to that is basically who has the money and why? Don’t choke on your burrito just yet. I’m not saying that having money makes you one of “them” anymore than not having money makes you one of “us.” One key facet is the why question. This boils down to one’s economic philosophy. Is the real economic idea a win-win or is it about taking what one can take? Greed is a handy, yet largely undefined word. Think Scrooge McDuck and his pool filled with gold coins. Yes, having economic means is a good thing. Not caring if others don’t is goofy. This is not about wealth redistribution as much as it is about one’s means is enhanced if the means to live is enhanced for others as well. Let’s call it opportunity to thrive—not everyone will of course, but no opportunity means someone will lose. That’s a hierarchy that does not serve either any individual or any community. Think about it.

How about teacher/administrator/student garb? Let’s toss in employer/employee, and doctor/patient as well—this is supposed to be a short essay. Who’s got the leverage and when may shift, but it can still be a guard/prisoner set-up because the pattern of authority belongs to the “knowing one” as opposed to the “non-knowing one.” How’s that working for us? Fine if it is absolutely true there is an expert and a non-expert. Not so fine if the expert assumes greater humanity than the non-expert. In such a system the point would be to position one’s self so as to avoid being the non-expert. Smart people do that and dumb people don’t, right? Refer to the head-in-the-bucket bit above.

It’s not a just world and that’s not because of the world. When any of us assumes the mantel of authority as though we are now better humans because of it, we only add to the misery.

Judging by how we keep on keeping on with the set-up, apparently misery is worth it.

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