Large-Scale Replication Experiments in Destructive Obedience and How to Resist (guest post by Mark Alfano)


The following is a guest post* by Mark Alfano, associate professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology. It originally appeared on his blog.

“Our smug self-assurance that genocide, democide, and other crimes against humanity only happen in other countries may be our undoing.”


trump-wall-of-trumps-raised-fist-2

Trump Presidency to be Large-Scale Replication Experiments in Destructive Obedience: Here is How to Resist
by Mark Alfano

You might think that, while four to eight years of President Trump will be embarrassing, they will not leave an indelible stain. But know this: America is not special. Our smug self-assurance that genocide, democide, and other crimes against humanity only happen in other countries may be our undoing. Americans are no better and—let us hope—not much worse than people everywhere. And people everywhere are liable to obey authorities who incrementally ratchet up their destructive orders.

There’s good scientific evidence for this claim. In the 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated it at Yale University. He showed that approximately two-thirds of ordinary American adults will, when subject to escalating social pressure, put 450 volts of electricity through a complete stranger whose only sin is failing to memorize a list of words.

The setup of Milgram’s experiment is simple: a participant and an actor who pretends to be an ordinary participant are ushered into the lab. The participant is “randomly” selected to be a teacher while the actor is the learner. When the actor makes a mistake in recalling the list of words, the participant shocks him.

milgram-setup

The shocks start at a benign 15 volts and increase by 15 volts for each subsequent mistake. Initially the actor stoically grunts through the pain, but at 150 volts he demands to be released from the experiment. By 300 volts, he’s “unconscious.” The experimenter tells the participant to treat failure to answer as a wrong answer, leading ultimately to three shocks in a row with 450 volts.

Why don’t the participants object? Many do. But at the first sign of disobedience, the experimenter mildly instructs, “Please go on.” Further disobedience is met with “The experiment requires that you continue,” then “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If the participant rebels a fifth time, the experiment is terminated. These verbal nudges are enough to get two-thirds of participants to be maximally compliant.

Shocked? So were laypeople and scientists of Milgram’s day. In interviews with 110 psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults who were not aware of his results, Milgram found that 100% predicted that no participants would go all the way and that the maximum shock they would deliver was 135 volts.

Milgram’s participants were unusual neither by American nor by global standards. Subsequent studies elsewhere in the USA, along with South Africa, Australia, Jordan, Spain, and Austria, have found similar levels of destructive obedience.

In a boon for psychological science and a moral test for the country, the Trump presidency will be the most ecologically-valid, large-scale replication of Milgram’s studies ever conducted.

Instead of issuing verbal prods, Trump commands the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA, and the military. Instead of torturing an obviously innocent victim, he targets African-Americans, women, Mexicans, Muslims, gay people and other groups who have faced dehumanizing animus since the United States enshrined slavery in the Constitution.

If 67% of us maximally comply with the destructive orders that are sure to flow from the Trump White House, Milgram will be proven scientifically right and we will be proven morally wrong.

Milgram’s studies aren’t all bad news, though. He and other researchers have identified six ways that you can be part of the resistant 33%. Here are the lessons we should learn:

1) Resist early. Almost everyone who goes one-third of the way in the Milgram study goes all the way. If you go along to get along, you’re likely to go much too far.

2) Resist loudly, visibly, and intelligently. In the presence of another resister, others become more inclined to resist as well. People are less susceptible to pressure from authority when they know how such pressure can affect them.

3) Use authority to resist authority. When a knowledgeable second party contradicts destructive orders, almost everyone resists.

4) Focus on the individuality of victims. Learn their names. Memorize their faces. Shake their hands. Hug them. Get close to them both psychologically and physically. Compliance drops by more than half when the participant has to touch the victim.

5) Seek solidarity. The solitary hero may be a romantic ideal, but courage breeds courage. Find other resisters and reinforce one another.

6) Nurse your contempt. Compliance drops by two-thirds when the person giving the orders is perceived as just some schmuck.

America is not special. With hard work and a lot of luck, we may emerge from this struggle ashamed but relieved that the worst did not come to pass. In the face of disaster, we can and must demand this much of ourselves.

guest
41 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joe
Joe
4 years ago

While I don’t have the time to give a full argument for this, I genuinely think that our conception of the threat here is distorted. We are seeing Trump as another Stalin or Hitler, thinking that our historical awareness of fascism protects us against him because history is going to repeat itself. And we use 20th-century psychology, conducted in the wake of WWII, to bolster our sense that we know what’s going on.

But what if he doesn’t need to be a fascist to do people harm? What if there are social, economic and (perhaps most importantly) technological structures in place which allow him to accomplish his aims without ordinary American citizens being asked to “comply” with anything? Why are we so sure that history is going to *literally* repeat itself?

Maybe history does repeat itself, but not in the simplistic manner we are envisioning. One of the reasons that fascism was so devastating is that (almost) no-one saw it coming. Now, zillions of progressives are certain that they can see fascism coming. See where I’m going with this?Report

Critilo
Critilo
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

The point being underscored here isn’t that “progressives are certain that they can see fascism coming.” Given the turbid hodgepodge of internal contradictions on which every aspect of Trump’s platform and administration are based, *we don’t know* what on earth to expect, but all indications point to a negative outcome. If the rankly authoritarian tenor blanketing Trump’s public presence and the views held by prominent members of his administration have done anything, it’s to give ample reason for progressives to infer what the next four years will involve: an entrenchment of racist and nativist dogwhistling; a disregard of and loathing toward scientific evidence when it conflicts with one’s personal urges; the enthronement of a notional “right to be correct” by dint of mere belief (provided that such belief agrees with Trump); the self-serving and carefully selective use of “political correct” as a term of abuse reserved for opponents; an atmosphere enveloped by apologetics and the normalizing of the Trump administration’s worst excesses; the enfranchising of conspiracy theories as a viable political strategy for taming dissent and disgracing critics; the silent enabling of back-door theocratic initiatives by the (predominantly evangelical) religious right; approval for and encouragement of threats and bullying by supporters; the retrogression of social welfare in preference for even greater concentration of power and wealth into the hands of the already rich; and some hundred other poisons following directly on the heels of what we already know Trump and his lackeys preparing to do.

A regime needn’t involve genocide, pogroms, or the machinery of war to be furthered by the advocacy of fellow authoritarians in the citizenry and the quiet compliance of the discontent and disinterested. Being the next Stalin or Hitler isn’t likely, but nor is it necessary for Alfano’s points to apply. All Trump has to be, as he has shown absolutely every sign of being, is Silvio Berlusconi wrapped in an American flag.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Critilo
4 years ago

Critilo, I accept that this is the more likely scenario. But there is a dilemma for the position you’re outlining. As the proposed future looks less and less like totalitarianism and more like, say, Reagan’s presidency, the Millgram experiments become less relevant to how we should think about that future.

“The silent enabling of back-door theocratic initiatives by the (predominantly evangelical) religious right” is not something that involves any person being pressured by an authority figure to do something they weren’t already willing to do anyway. But then why should we accept that the psychological data uncovered by Millgram are of any relevance to how we ought to respond to that “silent”, behind-the-scenes activity? What, exactly, is the analogy to that experimental situation supposed to be?

I should emphasize that I am not saying that we shouldn’t be worried. I’m suggesting that the experiments might be less relevant than the OP suggests, and I think that the left’s fixation on totalitarianism is distorting their view of what needs to be done.Report

Critilo
Critilo
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

See my follow-up post below, which I think addresses most if not all of the points in your reply.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Critilo
4 years ago

Sadly, it does not. You do not make clear exactly what the analogy between we post-Trump citizens and the subjects in the Millgram experiments is supposed to be. Neither you nor I nor the uncountably vast majority of US citizens would have to lift a finger for the programs you mention to be implemented. The people that would be lifting fingers to harm others would be militarized employees of the US government. That is a basic disanalogy. Nothing you’ve written addresses it.

My sense is that you’re thinking that the Millgram experiments demonstrate something more general, something like: powerful people can make subjects in their employ do very bad things. But while this is true, it is not what Millgram showed, and while I agree with absolutely everything you say re: what we should do about it, it is *certainly* not something we needed Millgram to tell us, since it leaps off the pages of virtually every history book.

This matters, because we might sit around waiting to “resist” something that never comes, worrying about our own compliance instead of attacking the social and governmental structures that allow these things (i.e. mass deportations) to take place.Report

Critilo
Critilo
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

“My sense is that you’re thinking that the Millgram experiments demonstrate something more general, something like: powerful people can make subjects in their employ do very bad things.”

Not quite. From my follow-up post: “In the possible event that we find ourselves, like Milgram’s subjects, faced with a combination of high social pressure and myopically rosy convictions about ourselves, all Alfano seems to be saying here is that we will be left in the position of trying to turn our ship around after rougher waters (which by no means require democide or segregationist policies to be so) are already upon us.”

It’s important to observe here that Alfano isn’t entirely negative, but has in view strategies to cultivate the “resistant 33%.” My point, and I think one of Alfano’s, is that our “myopically rosy convictions about ourselves” often lead to being insufficiently active in taking real steps as citizens to oppose abhorrent social policies like several of those advocated by Trump and his cronies. Social loafing and personal distance from the effects of such policies take over, leading more often than not to complacent indifference. As I said, Milgram found that a significant majority of individuals, under the right conditions, “can be brought readily and with ease to play an active role in inflicting severe physical harm on other people.” This tells us one obvious thing about the effects of social pressure, but also suggests one more to which Alfano draws attention, but which several respondents here seem to have missed: if maximal compliance with inflicting severe physical harm can be achieved with relative ease under the right conditions, then becoming part of the “resistant 33%” must involve grasping how this happens in real time and making the protection of targeted groups (Kathryn Pogin has aptly expounded on this elsewhere in the comments) an inseparable part of our own social goals.

“Neither you nor I nor the uncountably vast majority of US citizens would have to lift a finger for the programs you mention to be implemented.”

No, but that’s neither here nor there. Citizens aren’t going to stop the U.S. military, period. The point is that, as members of an ostensible democracy, the citizenry has an obligation — and *should* have a fierce desire — to decry and work aggressively against inhumane treatment and the undermining of rights. The vast majority of US citizens had no active role in rounding up Japanese immigrants and putting them into internment camps, but I assume you would agree that if such a thing were attempted again, citizens at every level of society would be ethically and socially obligated to do everything in their power to stop it rather than see it through.

“The people that would be lifting fingers to harm others would be militarized employees of the US government. That is a basic disanalogy. Nothing you’ve written addresses it.”

On the contrary, it’s one of the keystones of the analogy. Whatever explicit or implicit propaganda there may be to the contrary, members of the government and military aren’t exceptions to the citizenry, let alone magically exempt from culpability for carrying out heinous actions that shouldn’t have been ordered in the first place. (If anything, the exorbitant power they, like the police, can be entrusted to wield over other people places a unique burden on them *not* to obey orders that conflict with human and constitutional rights.) Anecdotally, my sister is a Marine, and after speaking with her yesterday evening about this very issue, I’m convinced that she would accept a court martial and punishment before submitting to an order to round up nannies, laborers, and restaurant workers for deportation. To do otherwise, she and I agree, would not be a forgivable offense. How many citizens, whether civilians or otherwise, would do the same under such orders?

“This matters, because we might sit around waiting to ‘resist’ something that never comes, worrying about our own compliance instead of attacking the social and governmental structures that allow these things (i.e. mass deportations) to take place.”

From my follow-up post below: “The best course, therefore, is to make our denunciation of Trump’s (and his cronies’) social promises known early and loudly, *following through on it at every stage*, and to play an active role in ameliorating the distance that too often leads to complacent disregard and willful ignorance.”

I don’t see how the citizenry could even possibly follow through on our denunciation of unacceptable practices and policies *without*, in your words, “attacking the social and governmental structures that allow these things.” The specific manifestations and the conditions that allow for them are of a piece, as far as I’m concerned, and Alfano seems to agree.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

This is pure psychotic madness. It is YOU people who are dehumanizing others. Just look at this article. The man hasn’t even taken office yet, and already you have paranoid delusions of him sending the CIA and Homeland Security out to round up and torture gay people. It’s hysterical nonsense. Get a grip, ffs.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Did you read the post all the way through? Maybe you missed this passage? “Instead of issuing verbal prods, Trump commands the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA, and the military. Instead of torturing an obviously innocent victim, he targets African-Americans, women, Mexicans, Muslims, gay people and other groups who have faced dehumanizing animus since the United States enshrined slavery in the Constitution.”Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

Kathryn, can you say what exactly there is in your quoted passage which contradicts what Greg said? The implication of the passage is unclear, but on one plain reading Alfano expects the CIA and Homeland Security to “torture” gay people. Since torture is a form of “targeting”, the passage can easily be read along the lines that Greg suggests.

Now, I don’t think that Alfano really believes this, and a more charitable reading says that the “Targeting” will be… I dunno, surveillance or something. At which point, Greg might still reasonably ask: what is our evidence that such programs are coming down the pipe? Maybe there is such evidence, I don’t know enough to say either way, but I definitely don’t think his concern (that belief is wildly out of proportion to the evidence here) can be dismissed so easily.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Given that the passage is contrasting what happened in the Milgram experiments with what he thinks will happen, I take it the implication is obviously that targeting is to be contrasted with torture. As far as the evidence goes, I’m actually a little alarmed you don’t think his concern can be dismissed so easily. Let’s not forget that Trump openly advocated for a ban on Muslim immigration, he openly proposed a Muslim registry, when pressed, he could not morally distinguish his own policy proposal from one of 1930’s Germany, and appealed to the internment of Japanese Americans as justification. His national security adviser has referred to Islam as a “vicious cancer” that needs to be “excised” from the bodies of all Muslims. He openly, repeatedly, and very publicly called for the execution of five men of color who turned out to be innocent. After they had been exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from someone who was actually guilty, rather than apologize, he doubled down — recently. He continues to call for a more liberal use of the death penalty. He’s publicly called for an increase in stop and frisk, refused to believe actual judge’s about the unconstitutionality of the form of increased policing he was calling for, suggested an American judge of Mexican decent could not do his job because of his ethnic heritage. One of the members of his transition team has been involved in some of the most racist laws since Jim Crow (Kris Kobach, e.g., SB2017). His appointment for Attorney General was considered too racist in the 1980’s for a federal judgeship and has slammed IDEA as leading to the decline of civility and discipline in schools as well as providing “special rights” to disabled students. His pick for Secretary of Education (which, if he doesn’t dissolve the DOE’s OCR, will oversee administrative enforcement of anti-discrimination law in schools) has a history of donating to organizations that, as a part of their mission, have attempted to undermine civil rights protections for LGBTQ communities. And Republicans are planning to reintroduce the FADA because they, not irrationally, believe the Trump administration will be friendly to it.

I certainly hope that things go better than Alfano expects — but we have every reason to believe his fears that certain groups will face increased discrimination are wholly justified. Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

Good, thanks. Greg asked for evidence, and you’ve given it. I don’t disagree at all about the seriousness of this things you’re highlighting, but I do think we can do better than snidely re-quoting the original post when people ask for evidence.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

I wasn’t snidely re-quoting. It genuinely appears to me that he didn’t read that passage, so I asked. I now realize at least some people think the passage is vague (e.g., you), but it remains unclear to me that Greg read it since I still take the passage to be very much distancing Alfano from the reading Greg offers. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

I would add that in general, I don’t think the burden of proof is on someone who claims that it’s not a conspiracy theory* to think that Trump will target minorities. His campaign statements are not obscure.

*Substituting for the original slur on the mentally ill, because I think that’s probably more like what the original poster mean.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I do love the use of “YOU people” though. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

Yes, Greg, it’s just like how one cannot speak of another’s murderous intent until they have attempted to kill another unjustifiably, and the only way we can have knowledge of whether another has some particular intention once we see them act on it. Dude.Report

Critilo
Critilo
4 years ago

The OP’s point is about twenty feet to your left.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

I could draw attention to the ableism of Greg Gauthier’s comment, but I want instead to ask Justin, Mark, and readers of the blog more generally if they think that this post should have been prefaced with some kind of content warning.

I found the descriptions of shocking and torture to be graphic. I don’t think that it is unreasonable to think that there may be readers of this blogpost who have been subjected to electroshock therapy because they are lesbian, gay, queer, hear voices, etc. or have been tortured by authorities of some kind in some other way.

Should philosophers appeal so freely to these sorts of examples in their writing , teaching, and philosophical discussions elsewhere?Report

Mark
Reply to  Shelley Tremain
4 years ago

Sorry if this was unduly upsetting, Shelley. I guess I thought the title was sufficiently informative that a further warning was unnecessary.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Does the OP have something in particular to do with philosophy or the philosophy profession? If so, what is it? Is it that we as philosophers have a special role to play in “resistance”? Or is “resistance” just a personal refusal to obey genocidal orders?Report

Mark
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Oh great, the “but is it really philosophy?” gambit. I was starting to think I would only face this from hostile audiences at talks.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Mark
4 years ago

Mark, the only one who has gotten hostile is you. I didn’t ask “is it really philosophy?” I asked if it has something in particular to do with philosophy or the philosophy profession and I even suggested a possible way that it might. My question is a reasonable one and deserves an answer instead of dismissive sniping.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I guess I misread your tone. The OP is a piece of moral psychology with socio-political implications, so that is its relation to philosophy. I doubt that philosophy as a profession will be some kind of hub of organization for resistance. Some of us are thinking about the topic, though.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Mark Alfano
4 years ago

Tone is easy to misread online I know. 🙂 But I’m still unclear on the philosophical connection. Is there a philosophical question being addressed? Is there a reason why philosophers in particular should be concerned about this, or should we just be concerned because we are citizens, and citizens should be concerned?Report

Mark
Mark
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

You seem to be assuming that moral psychology isn’t part of philosophy. I think it is. I’m not going to bother defending that position, as it seems obvious. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I’m assuming no such thing. I’m asking you questions, but instead of answering them, you seem to be giving dismissing and snarky responses. I’m just trying to understand where you are coming from Mark. I’m trying to understand why you think this is important and what its relevance to philosophers is supposed to be.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I don’t know whether you’re just trolling me at this point, but I’ll answer one more time. The question is, “How is this related to philosophy.” The answer is, “It’s moral psychology with socio-political implications.”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Mark Alfano
4 years ago

By the way, regarding philosophers in the “resistance”, I’m not imagining philosophers playing a leadership or organizational role. I’m imagining philosophers helping ordinary citizens to think political issues through for themselves.Report

Corey
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I am not a professional philosopher (some may take issue with this term, others if I did not use it) but I have a similar point of view. My biggest concern rests with the inability of American citizens to ignore the media’s dog-and-pony show and to focus and think through the issues instead. I am actively seeking ways in which I can help others sharpen their critical thinking skills through established community organizations or free seminars/corporate lunch-and-learns/what-have-you’s.

I live in Atlanta and thus far have been unsuccessful in finding organizations which are not already politically/ideologically aligned interested in discussing the possibility of integrating an ‘educational wing’ (for lack of a more concrete term). I find it troubling that the idea of creating ways to strengthen the critical thinking skills of members within an organization is considered “niche,” “boutique,” or otherwise irrelevant to their overall goal (these are responses I’ve been handed).

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an organization (regardless their affiliation) would not want its members to sharpen skills which could later be used challenge or otherwise disrupt the organizations structure, ideology, and mission…Report

m r srinivasan
m r srinivasan
4 years ago

there is a saying in our part of the globe that a freakily coarse person can go on tamping (his/her way past) some other down only as long as the latter is willing to go hunkering down ; once the limit of patience is exhausted he shall raise as a gale force to sweep clean his adversary ! And that is gonna be human psychology, in its generalisation….. Report

NotSure
NotSure
4 years ago

Milgram’s experiment has little to teach us about Trump. The President-elect is not instructing anyone to torture innocent people; he is just a normal, white, ignorant racist. It is better to just ignore Trump and wait until the next election. I’m not surprised Alfano’s text was rejected by the newspapers.Report

Alec Brady
Reply to  NotSure
4 years ago

Milgram is not about torture, it’s about obedience. So, if the administration orders the states to round up and intern illegal immigrants for deportation, should they comply? Should we as citizens urge them to comply or urge them not to? What about registering Muslims? If the President demands that we report our Muslim neighbours or colleagues,, if we suspect that they have not registered, what will we do? What the article says – rightly – is that Milgram throws light on this question.

Forget the nartow issue of torture, that’s a diversion. Forget the essentialism of trying to decide whether this is actual fascism (or is it Nazism or Falangism?) and focus on the concrete threat, and how you concretely plan to respond if that threat eventuates.

And, yes, it might all come to nothing, there might be nothing to object to. But you don’t wait until there’s a storm to decide whether you should have a lightning rod, and you shouldn’t wait until the authoritarianism appears before you consider how to respond to it.Report

Mar
Mar
Reply to  NotSure
4 years ago

You can only “wait until the next election” if you are a white, able, “normal-by-Trump-standards” person. Most people are NOT in that situation and do not have the luxury to wait it out, NotSure…Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

I am all for resisting racism, homophobia, etc. But the best way to resist Trump’s authoritarianism, if it becomes manifest (I suspect it will), is not by calling Trump or his supporters racists, etc. Labeling Trump supporters morally backward has a clear advantage for liberals and minorities: it gives a clean conscience when wanting more resources.

There is an analogue in academic phil: the rise of minorities in phil means white males are going to have less jobs. It is amazing how little this fact is talked about by people pushing for diversity. It is easier to talk about how anyone who identifies with how academic phil used to be is a racist, and so to demand the resources, rather than to face up to the fact that minorities having jobs in academic philosophy comes at a cost to some other people. It’s not ok to say, “well, they are white males, they already have a lot of privilage”; that treats them merely as labels rather than as people. Not saying therefore more minorities shouldn’t get jobs; but better to face up to the consequences of that on others, and be sensitive to that, than to cover it over with moral outrage.

Same thing in the case of America more generally. Many Trump supporters are tired of being labeled racists or misogynists, etc. We don’t highlight the racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism in blacks, asians, latinos. So why only in whites in America? People who want diversity need to step up their game and create dialogues that move people rather than shame them. Otherwise what happens is that the shaming gets passed on, from liberals to Trump supporters, and from them to Muslims and illegal immigrants, etc. Calling Trump names is the oxygen that gives him more power. Those who disagree with Trump need to find ways to deprive that oxygen. That is a mode of resistence as well, a distinctly philosophical mode of resistence.Report

LK McPherson
LK McPherson
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

To lecture Black Americans from a historically ill-informed place about “the best way” to respond to the likes of Trump and many of his supporters is condescending and absurd. For us, the way forward is hardly about “clean conscience,” “pushing for diversity,” “dialogues that move [White] people,” or any need to “be sensitive to” White tears. (And what “rise of minorities in phil” are you talking about?) For general guidance, try here:
http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2015/11/the_term_white_tears_is_funny_but_what_it_often_leads_to_isn_t/

People who “are tired of being labeled racists” could start by not acting like racists, regardless of whether they realize that’s what they’re (still) doing. Taking refuge in straw men and false equivalencies won’t help. As for “modes of resistance,” Black Americans have a range of worthy, homegrown models to choose from. In any case, public posturing from an illusory high road isn’t helpful. Alfano’s piece didn’t call for that, either.Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  LK McPherson
4 years ago

“To lecture Black Americans from a historically ill-informed place about “the best way” to respond to the likes of Trump and many of his supporters is condescending and absurd.”

I see no reason to read Bharath’s comment as a condescending lecture as opposed to an argument concerning the optimal means to achieve shared ends (reduce racism, disempower Trump and his movement, etc.). To me the most important point Bharath makes is that “Calling Trump names is the oxygen that gives him more power. Those who disagree with Trump need to find ways to deprive that oxygen.”

But maybe that’s just a terminological point, as you do discuss Bharath’s argument, in two ways. First, you say that “People who “are tired of being labeled racists” could start by not acting like racists, regardless of whether they realize that’s what they’re (still) doing.”

Well, sure, it would be great if racists would stop being racist. But that’s not at all germane to a discussion about which strategy is best employed by anti-racists to reduce racist behavior. By analogy, to say that war mongers should stop making war is of no use to the anti-war movement. I realize this is an incredibly obvious point, but I think it’s worth making, as the kind of response you give, LK, has become a common fallacy that’s used to avoid discussions of strategy.

Second, you write that “Black Americans have a range of worthy, homegrown models to choose from.”

This is consistent with Bharath’s point. I’m not an expert on black American political movements, but I would have thought that some of them “creat[ed] dialogues that move people rather than shame them.” If I’m wrong, and all black American models involve shaming, that still wouldn’t mean shaming is the right strategy here. In any case, it would be useful here to share the most relevant models.

My sense is that shaming (or stigmatizing, in Friedersdorf’s terminology: (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-scourge-of-the-left-too-much-stigma-not-enough-persuasion/508961/) can successfully pull those who are already within one’s political tribe in one direction or another. So radicals can sometimes shame moderates into taking more radical positions. I think the left has done a lot of his kind of shaming over the last five or so years; and so terms like “white tears”, “the patriarchy”, and “mansplain” have become increasingly popular. I think it bears investigating whether the same strategy is likely to have any effect on those outside our political tribe, in this case, on non-college educated whites whose death rates are rising. As a strategy for reaching these people, Bharath’s proposal seems to me more plausible than shaming. But that’s just an initial hunch; the debate between the two approaches should be based on evidence and, to the extent possible, on our scientific knowledge about persuasion and intergroup bias.Report

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  LK McPherson
4 years ago

I’m pretty sure you have misunderstood Prof. McPherson, if you think what he said is a “common fallacy that’s used to avoid discussions of strategy.” It’s a matter of whether philosophers like McPherson should now bite their tongues for strategic political reasons. (Is he supposed to stop talking about white racism in his classes? At home? In blog comments?)
This isn’t an area I know much about, and I won’t dispute strategy; I’m hoping, though, that some philosophers will continue to talk about racism where they see it, irrespective of strategic considerations.
Report

Johnny_Thunder
Johnny_Thunder
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
4 years ago

Nowhere did I say that anyone should stop talking about white racism, and obviously, philosophers like LK should keep talking about racism in a variety of venues. Perhaps you are confusing shaming with “talking about racism”?

Furthermore, I thought it would go without saying that the strategic considerations I’m suggesting apply to some contexts and not others. For example, they may not apply to private conversations between specific individuals.

It seems uncharitable to me to assume that Bharath didn’t intend either of these distinctions, but if he didn’t, then LK’s objection is not fallacious.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  LK McPherson
4 years ago

LK McPherson, I didn’t mean to lecture anyone, least of all Black Americans. I agree with the thrust of your comment. But I think it also brings out what is missing in our current general discourse.

I don’t know your background, but I am assuming you are a Black American. I am an Indian-American who moved to the US thirty years ago, as my family came here after immigration was opened up to Indian in the 60s and 70s, and most of my initial family that came here were doctors and engineers. I grew up in the mindset that going to a prestigous college and earning a steady career is the norm, and that we are entitled to this because this is magical America, land of opportunity. This is not true for all Indian-Americans, and many struggle. But my point is: it is disservice to conversations about diversity to mix together me and you, and treat it like all minorities are oppressed equally or in the same way.

The last fifty years in America saw two very different events: the end of official segregation, and the influx of minorities due to more open immigration policies. In my experience, liberals have combined these two events into one, under the label of minority rights. I can fully understand why some white Americans might feel under siege due to this conflation. I am not saying Indian-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus don’t have cause to be worried by Trump; very much they do. But Trump conflates Black Lives Movements, illegal immigrants, ISIS, as if they are all the same. My point is that liberals are helping this by also conflating different minority experiences.

It seems to me that precisely what I, as a brown American, can do to help Black Americans is to help conceptually separate my experiences from theirs, so that the pain of their experiences is better responded to, as well as the pain of my experiences.

I would say the same thing in academic philosophy. My own sense is that in a decade or two, there will be more Asian Americans in academic philosophy than Black Americans; this is due mainly to economic causes, and also that there is a clear Canon-like Asian tradition to point that the West already recognizes in some fashion. I am for diversity, and it seems to me that we have reached a point where making advances requires greater nuance in appreciating the differences between minority experiences, and what it means, and that theoretical advances along these lines can be helpful to undercut the broad strokes used by Trump and liberals alike.Report

Bharath Vallabha
4 years ago

Mark, you say, “The OP is a piece of moral psychology with socio-political implications.” Is that different from the piece being by someone who opposes Trump using moral psychology to rally his side? To my ear, the way you put it makes it seem like moral psychology is politically neutral, and has consequences which are of importance for keeping Trump in check; but at the same time, there is a blurring of science and politics, as if reason qua science is on the side of those against Trump. My worry is that this kind of blurring together actually has negative consequences, since then Trump supporters might think science itself as a social enterprise is biased against them.

I am not sure referring to Milgrim’s experiment is needed to make the general point of resisting Trump. Or if you want to talk about Milgrim’s experiment, it would be good to make clear that the experiment itself could be used by Trump supporters to make the converse point about resisting liberals. Report

Enheduanna
Enheduanna
4 years ago

On Tremain’s worry: the experiment involved torture, should that part have been sanitized? Are reports on scientific studies to come with trigger warnings now? Suppose I was a victim of unjustified electroshock therapy. I think I would rather KNOW that there is the potential for more of this TYPE of behavior than have my feelings spared for the sake of some political agenda. Get real.

Signed,
A RL PTSD SuffererReport

Critilo
Critilo
4 years ago

I’ve posted one medium-length reply here already, so perhaps I’m belaboring points already made, but I’m surprised to see how few respondents to this post seem to have grasped the very basic message it conveys. Several such respondents have leapt to imposing a concretely and excessively literal analogy at odds with the OP’s explicit statements. As best and most charitably as I can determine, the matter here isn’t to do with the conviction that Trump’s administration is poised to recreate Nazi Germany in the U.S., but with the far simpler and more general fact that Americans’ hubris about what can and can’t happen in their country — and within themselves — conflicts with what we know from individual and social psychology. Contra our cherished beliefs, Milgram’s experiments and those following on it demonstrate that, through social pressure, a considerable percentage of individuals can be brought readily and with ease to play an active role in inflicting severe physical harm on other people. If this stark finding is true, it suggests that we as concerned citizens should be watchful of and preemptively resistant toward political turns — whether in campaign rhetoric, administrative statements, or public expectations — whose manifestations coincide with ratcheting up promises for inflicting harm, whether physical or otherwise.

As I said in my last post, deflating our hubris needn’t entail believing that the Trump administration seems likely to institute a totalitarian state predicated on crimes against humanity. Instead, in this case it entails only acknowledging two things already supported by our best evidence: (1) Trump and various of his cronies *have* advocated the intentional denial of rights to one or more sectors of the American population, up to and including policies (such as the deportation of millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants) that would require violence to implement successfully; and (2) while education and upbringing partly account for what ends and means we might feel likely (and perhaps *be* likely) to accede to, our cognitive makeup isn’t special or radically distinct from that of our fellow hominids. In other words, we are not dealing with abstract worries in a grand collage of possibilities, but with specific resentments toward and consistent calls for action against more than one vulnerable group. In the possible event that we find ourselves, like Milgram’s subjects, faced with a combination of high social pressure and myopically rosy convictions about ourselves, all Alfano seems to be saying here is that we will be left in the position of trying to turn our ship around after rougher waters (which by no means require democide or segregationist policies to be so) are already upon us. The best course, therefore, is to make our denunciation of Trump’s (and his cronies’) social promises known early and loudly, following through on it at every stage, and to play an active role in ameliorating the distance that too often leads to complacent disregard and willful ignorance.Report