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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


In the early 1970’s a Stanford University Psychology professor, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted a now infamous experiment that examined the behavior of ordinary people placed in the role of prison guards. Although there were many flaws in the experiment from a scientific perspective, the outcome was to say the least alarming.   In brief, male students were recruited with a newspaper ad inviting paid participation.  Some were assigned the role of prisoners while others were designated as guards, issued uniforms and instructed to keep the ‘prisoners’ from escaping their mock prison cells.  The guards' behavior rapidly deteriorated and became more authoritarian and dehumanizing in a matter of days to the point of treating their fellow students playing the part of prisoners as faceless, nameless ciphers deserving of harsh treatment. After 5 days the treatment of the prisoners had become so brutal that a visiting psychologist confronted Zimbardo who then shut down the experiment.
There are many conclusions one might draw from this inarguably flawed experiment—but the part I’d like to focus on is how the ‘guards’ were influenced by the expectations of the mock Superintendent, Professor Zimbardo, and the mock Warden, his research assistant, David Jaffee.  Although they knew this was a psychological experiment, and that the prisoners were students like themselves, the guards leaned into their role and responded to prompts from the Warden and Superintendent to be vigilant and tough, to cease seeing their fellow students as people rather than as prisoners.  Some argue they did so out of a latent sadism or psychological abberation, but similar experiments suggest otherwise. Rather we must confront a reality; humans can be manipulated into saying and doing things that are out of character, and sadly in the extreme, inhumane.
I studied this experiment in college and it surfaced recently when I read about a paper just published in Scientific Reports based on a study conducted by data science professor, Robert West, and his research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.   West and his team conducted a retrospective analysis of political discourse during the terms of Barack Obama and Donald Trump and examined changes in the civility and rhetoric employed by politicians both at the Federal and State level.  It may come as no surprise that in fact beginning in 2015, during the run up to the Presidential election the tone of political discourse began to change, and not for the better.  
The research team analyzed more than a quarter million quotes from over 18,000 politicians extracted from 127 million news articles in an effort to have a broad and objective dataset to work from. In the interest of maintaining objectivity and removing any bias that the researchers might harbor, the team made use of a software tool that analyzes text for psychological and emotional content based on scoring the percentage of words reflecting negative emotions including anxiety, sadness, anger and swearing. Comparing the political rhetoric employed by politicians of both parties during the Obama Presidency and Trump’s term in office the researchers found an 8% increase in negative language overall.  As significant as this is, when quotes attributed to Trump exclusively were removed from the data set the negativity declined by over 40%. No surprise either, that during Obama’s term negative political rhetoric was on the decline. But I want to be crystal clear, this is not a screed about Trump or an attempt to lavish praise on Obama but rather it is about us, and about how we react, how we behave when those in authority prompt us to act, or give us tacit license to become our worst selves.
So, what is it we should we infer from these two studies?  First and foremost, that all of us, regardless of political persuasion, can be and are influenced by the tone and rhetoric employed by people in power.  Whether we are seeking to fit in, looking for approval, or feeling permission to behave in a certain manner, people in leadership positions confer a powerful license for good or bad.  While some might dismiss this study and its findings, there is no question that political rhetoric has taken an increasingly uncivil, often dehumanizing tone over the past decade.  And while we might bemoan this fact, the danger here is far greater.  Words in fact can harm us, if they incite people to insurrection, prompt violence against those who hold opposing views, or if they cause one group to see another as less worthy, less human, less deserving of life. 
As the Stanford experiment showed, it does not take very long before ordinary people begin to act on negative rhetoric.  Amplified by the media, the echo chambers of political radicalism are further incited by false news and extremist ideology much of it planted by foreign powers seeking to sow civil disunion in our country. And increasingly this tenor is also echoed by religious nationalists offering justification if not sanction for corrosive views. We can see this at work already in the re energization of racism and anti-semetism, in the treatment of the LGBTQ community, in anti abortion dialog and in the everday demonization of those who hold differing political and social opinions. Such behavior has already led to a great deal of human suffering and should it continue can only end badly for our country and our society.  When we ask ourselves how genocide becomes acceptable, how wars are precipitated, how terrorists can justify their actions, how racism takes root, it all begins with the rhetoric.  Let us never forget that it was incendiary speeches delivered not so many years ago in Nuremberg and Berlin that ushered in a reign of terror the likes of which our modern world hopes never to see again.
Are we guards or prisoners or something else?  It is we who must choose our role, and it is we who must decide how we will behave. We cannot lay that responsibility exclusively at the feet of politicians. When we passively accept such rhetoric, or respond enthusiastically, when we justify or are persuaded by others to see our fellow human beings as less deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we have been manipulated into violating that most fundamental of precepts and cardinal commandment to treat our fellow humans as we would be treated. If we think our world is headed in the wrong direction, we must ask ourselves if we are the agents of that change. True courage is standing for what is right, not with invective or hatred but with inflexible resolve, compassion and the knowledge that there, but for grace go we.
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