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What Sort of Person Does Evil or Stands by While Evil Is Done?

2016 February 8
by Ian Welsh

Last month, the media reported on a young man who refused to stand by while a classmate was having an asthma attack and was suspended as a result:

Anthony Ruelas watched for what seemed like an eternity as his classmate wheezed and gagged in a desperate struggle to breathe.

The girl told classmates that she was having an asthma attack, but her teacher refused to let anyone leave the classroom, according to NBC affiliate KCEN. Instead, the teacher emailed the school nurse and waited for a reply, telling students to stay calm and remain in their seats.

When the student having the asthma attack fell out of her chair several minutes later, Ruelas decided he couldn’t take it anymore and took action.

“We ain’t got time to wait for no email from the nurse,” a teacher’s report quotes him as saying, according to Fox News Latino.

And with that, the 15-year-old Gateway Middle School student carried his stricken classmate to the nurse’s office, violating his teacher’s orders.

What sort of person is Ruelas?

Mandy Cortes, Ruelas’s mother, told KCEN that she assumed her son–who has been suspended in the past–was to blame when the school informed her that he had been suspended again.

“He may not follow instructions all the time, but he does have a great heart,” she said, noting that she was now considering home-schooling him.

The boy is, in other words, a troublemaker with authority issues. Thank goodness, eh?

I imagine most readers are familiar with the Milgram experiment, where university students were told to shock people by authority figures and most did so.


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I’ve always been curious what the people who refused were like, but oddly, that research did not appear to have been done.

Until now (h/t S. Brennan).

A new Milgram-like experiment published this month in the Journal of Personality has taken this idea to the next step by trying to understand which kinds of people are more or less willing to obey these kinds of orders. What researchers discovered was surprising: Those who are described as “agreeable, conscientious personalities” are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while “more contrarian, less agreeable personalities” are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

“The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial—disagreeableness—may actually be linked to ‘pro-social’ behavior,'” writes Psychology Today‘s Kenneth Worthy. “This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one’s popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals, or the environment at large. Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority.”

…The study also found that people holding left-wing political views were less willing to hurt others. One particular group held steady and refused destructive orders: “women who had previously participated in rebellious political activism such as strikes or occupying a factory.”

Most people who are popular and too agreeable do not have strong red lines. Their morality is set by authority figures and peer groups. Whatever seems okay with the people around them is okay with them.

I wrote about this in the past in my post on the Decline and Fall of Post-War Liberalism. One key part of breaking an essentially egalitarian economic order was finding and destroying the people who wouldn’t go along to get along, the people who would fight.

Graph of incarceration in the US over time

From Wikipedia

This was done by creating a set of bullshit laws: Drug laws. Consensual activity which harmed no one (especially in the case of marijuana) was made illegal.

The sort of people who wouldn’t obey rules, laws, or orders that didn’t make sense to them disobeyed those laws and went to prison in droves, where they were destroyed politically, economically, and personally. The vast majority had committed no violence.

The gut was ripped out of America’s working and lower class troublemakers.

Since then, our method of child-raising has become one of high-surveillance. “Helicopter parenting” means children rarely spend time doing anything not approved of by parents or other authority figures. Police patrol schools. Children have cell phones, allowing their parents to check on them any time they want. Houses increasingly have internal surveillance systems to keep track of children.

People who are under constant supervision with little time to be alone or to be with friends without authority supervision tend to become “go along to get along” people, unused to thinking for themselves, and used to jumping through hoops for the approval of authority. Their entire lives have been about doing so, after all.

This is especially true of our elites, and while it’s usually been truer of them than the lower orders, it has become even more so than it was in the past. You could get into an Ivy league school in the past based on pure genius and talent; today you need excellent grades, an extra-curricular record which precludes alone time, and an essay which hits all the proper, authority-pleasing conformist points.

Society does not work for everyone when it becomes authoritarian and conformist. People are what they do, to a remarkable degree. We already had a system designed to create conformity (school is nothing but a conformity producing machine: sit down, speak only when called on, and do what you are told to do in exchange for adult approval and a decent future). The system we have now is even more designed to produce people who won’t stand up when asked, frankly, to be Nazis. Or torturers (an activity of which most Americans approve).

The troublemakers are the guarantors of your freedom and prosperity. When they are are broken, both will soon follow.

They were broken. Both followed.

31 Responses
  1. EmilianoZ permalink
    February 8, 2016

    This is the most thought-provoking article I’ve read in a long time.

    In our current society, loner is pretty much synonymous with loser. I didn’t think it was by design. I thought it was just the gregarious nature of human beings.

  2. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    February 8, 2016

    Ironically, I partially learned the virtue of non-conformity from the conformity propaganda.

    I absorbed the lesson that most young people began using drugs, or began engaging in other delinquent behaviors, because of peer pressure–so I internalized the need to ignore the crowd.

    Or as Exodus 23:2 (KJV) puts it: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”

  3. Ivory Bill Woodpecker permalink
    February 8, 2016

    Watergate helped me, as well. It’s hard to develop an unwavering respect for authority when you learn at age 11 that the President is a criminal.

  4. sumiDreamer permalink
    February 8, 2016

    Let’s not forget the real aim of the use of anti-psychotics (which are OFF LABEL usage) to put chemical restraints on children. The long-term effect of these drugs is to rot the brain’s decision center.

    Here is just one example of the problems:
    http://youthlaw.org/publication/can-antipsychotic-medications-for-foster-children-be-better-regulated/

    Take a look at the percentage of kids in foster care who are put on them!!
    There are plenty more articles like the one below:
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mad-in-america/201102/andreasen-drops-bombshell-antipsychotics-shrink-the-brain

    How can you be popular when your brain is being turned to mush at age five??

  5. V. Arnold permalink
    February 8, 2016

    The root of the problem is the forced educational system. And the root of that system is its basis which comes from the Hindu schools in India. Western educators realized that the docility of the lower castes was inculcated by the education based in Hindu teachings.
    Check out John Taylor Gatto; a brilliant teacher and author of Underground History of American Education.
    Before forced education illiteracy didn’t exist in the U.S.

  6. Joe permalink
    February 8, 2016

    @V. Arnold The Prussian-Industrial model of education was also a highly influential precursor to the modern American public system. While anecdotal, I am still in the process of going through public school and I can reassure you that it has gotten more authoritarian, repressive and inefficient at cultivating critical thought thus you get whiny, insolent citizens who hide under the veil of “tolerance”. I don’t see much hope for my generation as we have been systematically screwed over in most aspects for a “successful” or “happy” life. It’s no wonder so many of us have abnormally high levels of mental illness……

  7. V. Arnold permalink
    February 8, 2016

    Joe
    February 8, 2016

    Yes, no doubt.
    I taught in Thailand; its educational system is hopelessly broken. A student asked me how to fix it; my reply was; it can’t be fixed, so fix yourself…

  8. cripes permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Yes, John Taylor Gatto, who was my brother’s teacher at Manhattan’s I.S. 44, wrote the definitive work on American public schooling, detailing the influence of the Prussians and Carnegie, Horace Mann, Rockefeller et al.

    It’s a horrifying tale.

    We are a nation of conformists that flatter ourselves in the ridiculous belief we are rebels.

    And Ian is right about the drug war being a major tool in smashing anti-authoritarianism.

    John Erlichman:
    “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar Left, and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

  9. V. Arnold permalink
    February 9, 2016

    cripes
    February 9, 2016

    Your brother was fortunate indeed.
    I grew up starting just before Hiroshima. I have never behaved myself for long; right up to today.
    Watching the bread and circuses from afar (called campaigning), proves my maxim that most U.S. citizens do not mature past their senior year of high school.
    Cheers

  10. jump permalink
    February 9, 2016

    The conformity discussion is framed by the authoritarians (conformity is good and required for a functioning society), but I think the root is self-confidence. I think self-confidence allows you to explore the world and ideas and come to your own conclusions and judgements, and bestow validity on those conclusions even if they differ with the conclusions of others’. But even with difference, you respect and give validity to other opinions and by extension respect for the other. This seems fundamental to a functioning society that is egalitarian.
    The educational system has been broken for quite a while with a goal of teaching ‘trust the system, not yourself’ and the means to achieve that is by withholding the tools, or at least not teaching the tools for critical thought (fostering self reliance). The system teaches what to think, not how to think.
    There are also many other mechanisms baked into the current system (beyond just education) to strip a person of self-confidence, or try to break it.

    I found out early, grade 3 at least, that teachers do lie; not always but they will do so as a means to an end. Questioning authority came pretty naturally after that and did land me on the fringes but I would not have done it any other way. I thoroughly enjoyed the fringes; there were interesting and exciting people and ideas there and that is where I got the bulk of my education.

  11. EmilianoZ permalink
    February 9, 2016

    The poisoning of Flint’s water must be viewed in the light of this post. There was a long chain of people who knew about it and didn’t care enough to do anything. These are our new murderers, nice people in nice suits, behind nice desks, toiling tranquilly at the EPA, Dupont, Monsanto, BP,…. They will have a nice life, they won’t lose any sleep, there will be no responsibility, no special place for them in hell or heaven.

    Chris Hedges also wrote about this recently:

    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/flints_crisis_is_about_more_than_water_20160207

    We churn out millions of these technocrats or clerks in elite universities and business schools. They are trained to serve the system. They do not question its assumptions and structures any more than Nazi bureaucrats questioned the assumptions and structures of the “Final Solution.” They manage the huge financial houses and banks such as Goldman Sachs. They profit from endless war. They orchestrate the fraud on Wall Street. They destroy the ecosystem on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. They are elected to office. They are empty shells of human beings who stripped of their power and wealth are banal and pathetic. They are not sadists. They do not delight in cruelty. They are cogs in the machinery of corporate power.

  12. Ian Welsh permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Cripes,

    where is that Erlichman quote from? Amazing.

  13. February 9, 2016

    One of your best posts! Shared on FB. Great insight in a clearly packaged way–very interesting info. about the Milliken Experiments and who said no.

  14. February 9, 2016

    Human beings have been, and are being, increasingly domesticated, just as our animals are. And like our domestic animals there are benefits – we get fed, we are safer, we increase in numbers. We surrender our freedom of action, both mental and physical, for this. And like other domesticated animals, the size of our brains decreases. As you point out, when the environment doesn’t accommodate our domestication well somebody pays a price. It is probably worth it, otherwise we’d be seeing a lot more violence. When industrial civilization breaks down we’ll step over the edge of civility and the violence will begin in earnest.

  15. shh permalink
    February 9, 2016

    @ V. Arnold and cripes

    You may be interested to read “REPORT ON THE GOVERNABILITY OF DEMOCRACIES TO THE TRILATERAL COMMISSION” published in 1975.

    It’s fairly enlightening re: oligarchs attitudes toward us proletariat and pretty much calls specifically for dumbing down Uhmurca by defunding public education, such as it was.

    The Trilateral Commission is alive and well, btw and you can find your very own copy of the report on their website, the home page is here: http://trilateral.org/

    the link to the report is here: http://trilateral.org/file/8

  16. willf permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Popularity, in the end, may be more a sign of social graces and perhaps a desire to fit in than any kind of moral superiority.”

    When was popularity ever seen as moral authority?

  17. Chris Prom permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Ian,

    the Erlichman quote is in the book Dreamland: the True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic, but I am not sure of the ultimate source.

    Agree with other commenters, one of your most though provoking posts ever.

  18. bgf permalink
    February 9, 2016

    They are empty shells of human beings who stripped of their power and wealth are banal and pathetic. They are not sadists. They do not delight in cruelty. They are cogs in the machinery of corporate power.

    “Little Eichmanns”

  19. Larry D permalink
    February 9, 2016

    One of my favorite short quotes:

    “Every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.”

    Mignon McLaughlin

  20. cripes permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Little Ehrlichmans, perhaps?
    The quote seems to originally be found in Dan Baum’s Smoke and Mirrors: The War on
    Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
    he also attributes the following to H.R. Haldeman:
    “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Haldeman wrote. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

  21. EmilianoZ permalink
    February 9, 2016

    Cripes:

    “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Haldeman wrote.

    This reminds me that during the Occupy Wall Street events, Chris Hedges hoped that African Americans would join the movement. He seemed to imply that OWS would have a much better chance of success if they did, that they would become the heart and soul of the movement. It never happened and OWS collapsed.

    Hedges really loved OWS. I remember an OWS guy interviewing him and Hedges could not stop thanking the guy and crying at the same time. He must have been crushed when they were crushed.

    I once visited an OWS encampment in DC (the one in McPherson Square). I have to admit that they repulsed me a bit. They looked like a bunch of bohemians. I guess I was the nice conformist and they were the true troublemakers, the ones with strong red lines. I should have been more grateful to them. I wonder where they are now. Maybe some are now Bernie bros and sis.

  22. ekstase permalink
    February 9, 2016

    I can’t help but wonder if the superficial and the phony were as highly prized in earlier, pre-capitalism societies. There is a range of personalities that seems to be inherent in humanity. But only some of them are prized by our society. I think what I’m suggesting is that this can’t last forever, because the curiosity and need for freedom that drives some people will not stop. Until recently, we’ve been told who is popular and who we admire, by a combination of photography, voice recordings and print media that now often seem like just lies. This is new. So maybe there is a chance that we could return to a less property-obsessed, and therefore, more real way of being human beings, but this time, on a global scale.

  23. cripes permalink
    February 10, 2016

    EmilianoZ

    Yeah, maybe sometimes the necessary voices issue forth from people and from quarters we may find distasteful, in terms of their appearance, hygiene or lifestyles. It could even be said junkies have made a contribution. Or rock-throwing kids. Flamboyant queers. After all, Jesus was a homeless guy. We should find a space to accommodate as much, dare I say, diversity as possible.

    ektase

    Yeah, my father, who worked in early television, would say it was the greatest media put to the stupidest purposes. So I’m still not sure if the technology is the problem, or the people who control it. Maybe both.

    In any case, we are afflicted by an insidious homogenization of images, sounds and memes passed off as ideas. I often marvel that people I overhear seem like a random collection of thoughtless cliches they have absorbed through some weird media osmosis and the repetition of those same idiocies echoed by their acquaintances with rarely an original thought passing their lips. It’s creepy and self-reinforcing groupthink.

    Back to Ian’s point: in such a world carrying an asthmatic girl to medical assistance is an act of courage and rebellion. But the man who did it thought only of alleviating her suffering. That exactly it. He thought. For himself. Of someone else.

  24. February 10, 2016

    Stupid decision by the teacher. She could at least have listened to reason. Morality must come before the law else we will all end up just obeying orders like the Germans under Hitler. You have to have the courage to face the music afterwards of course, but if you stay on the right side of the truth you should be able to defend yourself.

    I am not surprised by the updated Milgram experiment, however. People are either conformist or intellectual. I define intellectual as someone whole thinks for themselves and goes their own way, someone in short who is capable of free will, that is the ability to follow their principles rather than their instincts. You don’t have to be bright to be intellectual, but it helps! It’s a psychological disposition, not a measure of intelligence.

    Conformists on the other hand are generally ruled by their instincts. They may have had happy childhoods and so have never questioned them. They just want to fit in and be accepted. That is why they are more accepting of authority, however stupid.

    Instincts can be either genetic or nurtured, famously observed by the poet Philip Larkin when he wrote:

    “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
    They do not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    Then add some extra, just for you!

    But they too were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats
    Who half the time were soppy stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    So get out as early whilst you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.”

    I can’t say I agree with the last sentiment. I have always tried to pass on my genetic inheritance in better condition than I found it (totally screwed up!). But in many ways I am grateful to my parents because it does mean I am independent-minded, forward-looking and optimistic. Whereas those from happy childhoods often seem backward-looking, confused and cynical. The instincts you inherit are not your fault, so don’t take them personally! Just try to understand them; cause and effect.

    I often think there is a much wider gap between the top end of the human spectrum, ie those who have principles and exercise free will, and the bottom end than between those at the bottom end and the rest of the animal kingdom. Too many of us are simply driven by our greed, fears, stomachs and genitals.

  25. February 10, 2016

    PS. You might like my post at https://jepoynton.com/2015/02/07/threats-to-and-nature-of-our-free-society. (no edit facility on this blog!?)

  26. dfdf permalink
    February 10, 2016

    I once visited an OWS encampment in DC (the one in McPherson Square). I have to admit that they repulsed me a bit. They looked like a bunch of bohemians. I guess I was the nice conformist and they were the true troublemakers, the ones with strong red lines. I should have been more grateful to them.

    Your instincts were fine. OWS was mostly just another layer of soi-disant dissent aimed at people who’d seen through the Democrats’ kayfabe.

    They refused to make any meaningful demands, and the one time they had a chance to actually “make trouble” with the port stoppages they made sure to time the stoppages to miss any actual shipping. Thereby managing a trifecta of alarming ordinary citizens with a “radical” tactic, while simultaneously not-inspiring them with their non-insistence on their not-demands, and not disturbing any powerful interests in any meaningful way.

  27. gkf permalink
    February 10, 2016

    It’s worth pointing out that there’s no necessary connection between the sort of superficial non-conformity of manners so beloved of popular culture, and the principled non-conformity at issue here (though both can sometimes be found in the same people.)

  28. February 10, 2016

    An older friend says that his boomer generation was taught to think and the elites were so horrified by the anti-establishmentarian results that they learned to never do *that* again.

    Helicopter parenting can be one or both of two different things: the fear of something bad happening to the kid and resulting physical or emotional over-protection, or a desire for control over the child’s actions for authoritarian reasons. Some parents won’t let a kid fail because they see the child as an extension of themselves and the child’s success boosts the parent’s starved ego. Or the child must succeed because failure is seen as disobedience towards the parent.

    A child raised in an authoritarian system will derive his identity, purpose and self-esteem from being part of the system. To cross the system is to risk rejection from the system and its members. To refuse to obey the parents is to risk losing their “love,” since approval/ love and a sense of belonging is traded for obedience in authoritarian families,

    So the authoritarian ex-child signs a paper that will poison a city, since *not* doing so is unthinkable. They vote for the torture candidate since the authority has all the power and responsibility in this system and the follower’s only responsibility is to be obedient to his leaders. And they develop a finely-honed ability to deny everything and anything that would threaten their position in the hierarchy.

  29. V. Arnold permalink
    February 11, 2016

    Susan of Texas
    February 10, 2016
    An older friend says that his boomer generation was taught to think and the elites were so horrified by the anti-establishmentarian results that they learned to never do *that* again.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    That’s utter bollocks. I’m 70 yo and a victim (since recovered) of the public schools, where critical thinking was nowhere to be found in an educational system designed to teach subservience.
    A few individuals (who’s names escape me at the moment) broke free of the indoctrination and saw reality.
    Like town criers, they spread the word and those of us who refused to submit, heard the message, and carried the message forward and a movement was born.
    U.S. public education is and has always been an indoctrination intended to create followers, sycophants, to keep order in the system. A system, by design, to serve the top .01% and provide a consistency and order for the continuation of the docile proletariate.

  30. February 11, 2016

    He was taught by Catholic priests who were former missionaries so his experiences are not exactly common.

  31. Hvd permalink
    February 11, 2016

    I’m a little younger than J Arnold but I noticed a dramatic change when my parents moved from a blue collar to an upper middle class white collar community. In the first there was an active search for and nurturing of the “best and brightest” as they were the hope for the future. In the upper middle class community which was certainly riding the wave of the future the only interest was in finding the winners. Cheating was rampant and tolerated because after all winning was the important thing. There was absolutely no rigor as there was n reason to work – they were the anointed. Of course this was the trajectory of America’s future.

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