Tiling a bathroom floor is a good time to catch up on the long list of podcasts clogging up my switcher queue.
Unfortunately, they all seemed to take a dark turn yesterday. I felt hit one time after another with tales of what vicious animals we can be. As I listened I was thinking of the Faustian comic my son and I found as an iPad app / book, Howard Numlek, that tells the tale of Howard, a meek, uncertain, jobless man who is taken into the employ of Red Suit, Inc., the front company of Satan himself. Poor Howard doesn’t want to work for the Prince of Darkness, but he’s unemployed, the pay is good and he doesn’t have to sell his soul just to work there. All he has to do is collect on the contracts.
I started to think… ‘Yes, I would probably sell myself into such an evil position pretty quickly given the chance.’
The first podcast was Ira Glass’, This American Life. It’s always been a favorite of mine since I first started listening almost twenty years ago. The most recent episode is about ‘Good Guys,’ and the men who think of themselves as such. There were several acts, but the one I thought was most amusing was trying to get the ‘Good Guy Discount.’ … “Hey, you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy, how about we take a little off this purchase to ease the pain a little?” Amazingly, this kind of approach actually seems to work with some people under some circumstances. But the question is, ‘What kind of guy goes around saying he’s a good guy and looking for a reward?’
The obvious answer is: not a very good guy.
Next up, also on This American Life, was the story of an Afgan War veteran and his memoirs that show how effective the US Infantry is at converting a mild mannered man into someone whose greatest hope is that he will have the opportunity to kill someone.
Is this something that his experiences did to him – or is it simply uncovering the deep, dark truth inside of us all?
Finally, Freakonomics with their story “Fear Thy Nature”. As if I wasn’t already doing that!
This story brought up the 1971 Stanford Prison experiment in which students were separated into two arbitrary groups, one becoming prisoners and the other becoming guards. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was stopped after six days due to the abuses of power exhibited by the guards.
There is some controversy about whether this experiment went the way it did because that’s the way human nature takes us – or if the study volunteers knew what was happening and made an effort to play to the camera.
While I was listening to this I was reminded of a diversity training video I had seen while employed at a plastics manufacturing plant in Delaware City during college. The video illustrated just how easy it was to invent a stereotype about a group from thin air and make it sting in just fifteen minutes of conditioning.
The most amazing thing about this exercise was that I remember the trainer at our company turning off the video and starting a conversation with the employees only to find that they had picked up on the stereotype and were just as vehement in aggressively applying it as any other brand of prejudice that they had ever felt. They had to be reminded more than once that this was only made up as a lesson.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to find this video from the little I remembered about seeing it twenty years ago. It’s still available as Blue Eyed with Jane Elliot from ABC Training. Although I can’t post it here because it is still used, you can follow the link and watch the entire 30 minute video online – it’s astounding. For a taste of the lesson, watch some footage of Ms. Elliot putting this lesson in action with her 3rd grade classroom in Iowa.
What does this have to do with the low opinion of humanity’s moral character? Watch the video, see how easy it is to sow division between people. It’s a great lesson about the arbitrary nature of bigotry, but it’s also a sad testament to the willingness of people to learn a new stereotype.