The Authoritarian Within

by Professor Jack

Perhaps the most frustrating feature about liberals is that they don’t even know they are liberal. Their way of seeing the world is simply to view it as What Is. They know nothing else. Those who think and believe differently are, in their eyes, aberrations, clueless as to the true nature of things. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of a number of important events. We’ve mentioned the civil rights March on Washington, DC, by Martin Luther King, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A little later this year we will remember the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

1963 also marks the commemoration of something I’ll bet most of you have never heard of. I refer to the Yale experiments on the tendency of humans to obey authority when they are expected to, even when it violates their consciences. These experiments were the work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. When subjects were told to inflict pain on other subjects in situations of stress and expectation, they did so, often without hesitation. 

Young Yale students who in most situations identified with progressive, tolerant modes of behavior, and who understood themselves to be humane and undogmatic in their social views, turned authoritarian when the situation demanded it. “Teachers” paired off with “learners;” the former gave the latter electrical shocks when answers to problems were wrong. The “teachers” were drawn from student volunteers. More than two-thirds of these gave what were intended to be the highest level of shocks, ominously marked “XXX.” 

The whole thing was a setup, and nobody really got hurt, and some of the participating “teachers” experienced remorse. But the study did reveal a disturbing trait about human interaction: in situations where one group is given authority over another and is expected to enforce the compliance of the other, things can get ugly in a hurry. 

Over the years, the Milgram studies have been widely criticized and condemned, mainly for their methodology. But Milgram’s conclusions have been a problem for many researchers as well. That’s because those conclusions fly in the face of the progressive self-image that has come to dominate public culture. 

Milgram was simply ascribing to putatively civilized contexts the same lessons that Hannah Arendt was drawing from her studies on the trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann: That those put into positions of political and social control will do as they are told much more readily than they will follow their own professed moral beliefs, even if it results in cruelty.  

Such experiments would be impossible to conduct in our sensitive times. That’s a pity, because it means we may never come to know ourselves as deeply as we might. 

Christians and conservatives instinctively know all of this to be true, of course, because ours is a worldview that allows for the ambivalence and conflict that lies at the base of human nature. We know ourselves, and the endless inner warfare that characterizes our lives, and we’ve taken what measures we can to allow and compensate for that. 

Our cultural adversaries, however, have a completely different understanding of evil in the world. We see evil as intrinsic, running through every human heart; for them evil is extrinsic, separating them from others. 

As our societal worldview slides ever closer and closer towards liberal orthodoxy, we can expect those in control of social norms to act similarly to those students in Milgram’s laboratory. Dissent will carry a price. When we Christians, conservatives and traditionalists fail to hold the proper attitudes, say concerning homosexual marriage, we are likely to be ostracized, prosecuted and disenfranchised. 

This will sound far-fetched to many of my readers, I know. But you have to remember that none of those students walked into Milgram’s laboratory intending to hurt anyone. But when faced with the situation and the expectations singular to it, it just came natural. They were so liberal, you see.