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Prisoners Of Our Own Device

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In his book Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons (which, incidentally, seems not to be available to American readers through Amazon), Clive Stafford Smith describes the way in which the military personnel guarding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay absorb and adopt a persona that exemplifies the role they perceive themselves to be playing. They listen to a partial and lopsided broadcasting of events on their Forces radio in their secluded, protected section of their isolated island. They mix in a social stasis of black and white, good and bad, criminals and saviours.

They are willingly seduced by the glamour of one version of events and succumb to the heroic way in which they are portrayed: as holding the line between order and civilization on one hand, chaos and the terrorist hordes on the other. Hardly surprising, then, that when one of their own military personnel is put into an orange jumpsuit and told to disobey orders (but, critically, with nobody else informed that this is an exercise), they beat him so severely that he ends up with permanent brain damage. He was, after all, clearly the enemy and no mistake.

Perhaps we all pretend to be who we would wish to be and therein may lie our problem. Are we actually pursuing our own wish fulfillment or do we just become whatever we are persuaded to be by others? These 'others,' of course, may be siblings and loved ones, parents and employers, companies, advertisers, and governments.

The concept that we tend to fall into groups or hierarchies within a power structure is hardly new. Nor is the idea that the groups we occupy, and from which we look out upon the rest of the world which is not ours, tends to be corrupting and simultaneously provides social cohesion and the catalyst for social collapse. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding shows the tenuous grasp of civilization over the lurking savage within us all.

Philip Zimbardo showed much the same outcome with his Stanford Prison Experiment. He sat up an experiment in which a group of mainly white, middle-class, and intelligent people were divided into prisoners and guards. He told the guards: "You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they'll have no privacy… We're going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we'll have all the power and they'll have none."

The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but was abandoned after six days because of the increasing brutality of the guards and the random and disproportionate punishment they inflicted. Incidentally, the prisoners became so cowed that they would not leave even when given the opportunity to do so. They saw themselves as prisoners with no facility to control their own lives.

Obviously, this has resonance with what happened at Abu Ghraib prison. It also connects with Stanley Milgram's experiment in which people were prepared to inflict severe electric shocks on other people, as long as a person in authority claimed it was acceptable and expected of them. Milgram said: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

We would all like to believe ourselves to be reasonable, responsible people, guided by our own moral compass, which is not buffeted by the mere sound and fury of others, but are we deluding ourselves?

When governments say they are going to get tough on crime or immigration or corruption, are they just going through the motions of the role they have acquired through being in a position of power, and do we then imagine there are threats, which may actually be entirely spurious? Do we each, from our relative perspectives, simply play our parts in a wearily choreographed self-fulfilling prophecy, in which expectation subordinates truth?

More importantly, do these entrenched roles from which we see no easy route of escape make us increasingly incapable of adapting to a world where change is actually a necessary part of bringing about good outcomes?

In Britain, people have been persuaded that they are getting richer. Certainly, they have been able to buy lots of things that tend to give a false impression that this is the case. The problem is that it has been based upon the simultaneous acquisition of debt to fund the extravagance, to the point that personal debt in Britain is now greater than the country's GDP by a significant amount.

In America, poor people who could not actually afford to buy a home were persuaded to jump on the bandwagon of the American dream, in which they felt reasonably entitled to play a part, only to then find they had been sold an expensive millstone ‘round their necks, which they could never fund. These bubbles are slowly bursting to catastrophic effect, and when the final wreckage scatters itself through everybody's lives, there will be a lot of blaming by people, the media, and politicians.

If people saw themselves, not as the actors in some advertiser's dream, but as people capable of making their own independent judgments, would they keep falling into this trap? If politicians admitted that the good times are over for good, would people adapt or would there be a general insurrection?

If we are not to be the playthings of the state or commerce, we need to wonder whom actually controls what and why. If we see our lives as nothing other than a collection of appetites that have to be satisfied and other people as either providers of our needs or potential thieves of our imagined rights, what type of people have we become? The way we see the world may be conditioned by ancient instincts and tribal insularities, but we need to look towards a clearer personal vision of either the minutiae of our lives or vast unfolding global events.

In a topsy-turvy world, do you imagine that the poor prevent you from being richer, or that maybe you actually have more than you deserve? Do you imagine every immigrant is going to steal your job or sponge off the state, or that they may be better qualified than you and pay more taxes in due course? Do you think climate change is just a publicity stunt, or that politicians would have to play down the truth just to keep order? Do you think you deserve everything you have, which means those with less must equally deserve their misfortunes? Are your opinions perverted by others who delight in conformity, or are you really the free thinker you pretend to be?

Are you properly fulfilling the function that has been assigned to you, with all its inbuilt hatreds and fears, lusts and longings, and predictable opinions and postures simply because of something you read or something somebody said? Are you, in fact, a proper, autonomous person or a caricature, an automaton who can only babble back what has been fed by the media in creating regiments of stereotypes, all colluding against imagined foes?

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, it was Zimbardo's girlfriend who called it to a halt because she saw it as immoral. We all need to maintain our independent moral acuity, even when the vast onslaught of prevalent opinion is against us. Another experiment has a line of people, the stooges first. They are shown a series of drawn lines and asked to say which is the longest and it is clear and obvious. One by one, the stooges give the wrong answer. When it comes to the person at the end of the queue, he falls into line under peer pressure and gives an answer he patently knows to be false.

Galileo knew he was right, but the Inquisition made him recant and he was put under house arrest because his ideas did not fit in with those of the church and state at the time. We still live in a world where powerful groups desire mass conformity, often at the same time as pretending they are giving us freedoms, as if those freedoms were their right to bestow or withhold. We need to be individually and morally vigilant as the proper price and duty to merit freedom.

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