Day: April 13, 2007

Freeing a Locked-In Mind

“The idea is radical: we might soon be able to reach a number of people, including 250,000 Americans, who suffer from consciousness disorders–patients who, until now, had been considered beyond treatment.” (Scientific American)

World Bank staff to Wolfowitz: "Resign"

“World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged Thursday that he erred in helping a close female friend get transferred to a high-paying job, and said he was sorry. His apology didn’t ease concerns among the bank’s staff association, which wants him to resign.” (Yahoo! News) The overt issue is Wolfowitz’s nepotistic promotion of a woman with whom he was romantically involved. However, he has been a disaster in his role heading the Bank, hiding himself behind a cadre of imported conservative advisors, unilaterally denying funding to projects that do not meet his priorities, and dissing European members’ priorities in particular to the point that some Western European countries are threatening to seriously decrease their level of funding for Bank projects. His campaign against corruption is, critics say, a thinly-veiled cover for spreading a neocon/neocolonial notion of “democracy.” Of course, Bush has recently expressed his fullest confidence in the job Wolfowitz is doing, bolstering concerns that the World Bank is becoming the development arm of the Pentagon (Guardian.UK). All of this is coming to a head on the eve of the World Bank/IMF’s spring meetings (NPR). Sparks should fly…

The Heroic Imagination

Edge interview with Philip Zimbardo, designer of the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment:

“As a social psychologist, I bring forth the power of situations to transform good people into evil, which is what I’ve been studying since my Stanford prison study way back in 1971. I argue that there are some features of special situations that can corrupt the best and brightest. Normal people, even good people. Not all, but most. And the ones who resist, the ones who somehow have the street-smarts – the situational sophistication – to resist are the exceptions. In fact, I’m going to call them heroes.

…My research really says several things. One, that we have to recognize that some situations, some social settings, some behavioral contexts, have an unrecognized power to transform the human character of most of us. Two, that the way to resist – the way to prevent a descent into Hell, if you will – is precisely by understanding what it is about those situations that gives them transformative power. It is by this understanding that you can change those situations, avoid those situations, challenge those situations. And it’s only by willfully ignoring them, by assuming individual nobility, individual rationality, or individual morality that we become most vulnerable to their insidious power to make good people do bad things. Those who sustain an illusion of invulnerability are the easiest touch for the con man, the cult recruiter, or the social psychologist ready to demonstrate who easy it is to twist such arrogance into submission.

One way of looking at the consequences of the Stanford Prison Study is as a cautionary tale of the many ways in which good people can be readily and easily seduced into evil. But there’s an equally important – maybe more important – consequence of the study, which is what it tells us about the flip side of human nature. The Stanford Prison Study was ended abruptly: it was supposed to run for two weeks and it ended – was terminated – after only six days because of a very heroic act…”

Zimbardo reveals that he ended the experiment because of the abhorrence his girlfriend, now his wife, expressed when she came down to observe. Zimbardo turns Hannah Arendt’s phrase on its head, talking about the “banality of heroism”:

“Most people in the world who engage in heroic acts are …individuals who find themselves in a particular situation – one in which other people are looking the other way or continuing to perpetrate an evil behavior – and who, for some reason we don’t know, take heroic action. They do something to stop it – blow the whistle or otherwise challenge it in a direct way. That action is “heroic,” even if the people are “ordinary.” My sense is that the typical notion we have of heroes as super-stars, as super heroes, as Superman, and Batman, and Wonder Woman, gives us a false impression that being a hero means being able to do thing that none of us can actually accomplish. I want to argue just the opposite: that what we have to be doing more and more is cultivating the “heroic imagination” – especially in our children.”

Zimbardo’s notion of a hero has alot to do with activism, empowering people to speak truth to powerful wrongdoing, both by “cultivating the heroic imagination” in individuals, largely through education, and by changing our institutions so they become “hero-engendering.” He calls for “a new revolution of making heroes more common”. Nothing really new in this except the phraseology; it has been the eternal preoccupation of social critics and revolutionaries. But how to get there…