nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,

Zimbardo on Abu Graib and such

Ok, something to be grateful for--considering what people default to, it's astonishing and wonderful that more-or-less decent societies ever happen.

Also, sadism (and I mean the non-consensual kind) is pretty easy and tempting, but it's interesting that it never gets publically defended for its own sake. There's always some more legitimate value that gets invoked--civil order or justice or making the sun come up.

The whole thing is excellent, but here are a few interesting bits.


When I was a teacher at NYU I noticed that there were hundreds and hundreds of vandalized cars on the streets throughout the city. I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to NYU in the Bronx, and I'd see a car in the street. I'd call the police and say, "You know, there's a car demolished on 167th and Sedgwick Avenue. Was it an accident?" When he told me it was vandals, I said, "Who were the vandals? I'd like to interview them." He told me that they were little, black, or Puerto Rican kids who come out of the sewers, smash everything, paint graffiti on the walls, break windows and disappear.

So I created what ethologists would call "releaser cues". I bought used cars, took off license plates, and put the hood up, and we photographed what happened. It turns out that it wasn't little, black, Puerto Rican kids, but white, middle-class Americans who happened to be driving by. We had a car near NYU in the Bronx. Within ten minutes the driver of the first car that passed by jacked it up and took a tire. Ten minutes later a little family would come. The father took the radiator, the mother emptied the trunk, and the kid took care of the glove compartment. In 48 hours we counted 23 destructive contacts with that car. In only one of those were kids involved. We did a comparison in which we set out a car a block from Palo Alto, where Stanford University is. The car was out for a week, and no one touched it until the last day when it rained and somebody put the hood down. God forbid that the motor should get wet.

The preconceptions about who vandalizes cars are an example of racism, but it's also an example of prejudice against young people--a very common and generally unexamined prejudice.

We learned that in real prisons one of the things guards try to do is weaken the masculinity in dominance, because prisons are a threat to the guards' security. And so at Stanford the prisoners wore smocks with no underpants, like dresses. We did that purposely to feminize them. The guards would tell the prisoners that they should line up to play leapfrog. It's just a simple game, except when you leap over each prisoner your genitals smack each guy's head.

This kind of thing utterly gives me the creeps--aside from the mistreatment of the "prisoners", it makes me nervous about what being actually female signifies to a lot of men.


Afaik, the pictures at Abu Graib were intended to be shown to new prisoners for intimidation. Anyone have details?


Work conditions at Abu Graib:
Image the cumulative stress of working 12 hour night shifts, 7 days a week, with not a day off for 40 days! Also regularly missing breakfast and lunch because he slept through them having finished his tour of duty at 4AM and sleeping in a small cell in another part of the prison that he rarely left. When he complained about children mixed with adult inmates or mentally ill or those with contagious TB among the prisoners, he was reprimanded, but rewarded for helping to get confessions by softening up the inmates. Not once was there any official supervision on his night shift that he could rely on. There were insufficient guards, 8 for 1000 inmates and none had been adequately trained for this tough job.


There are a lot of people (maybe the majority?) who don't do evil, but don't oppose it.
In our prison study it was the "good guards" maintained the prison. It was the guards on the shift where you had the worst abuses who never did anything bad to the prisoners, but not once, over the whole week, did they ever go to one of the bad guards and say, "What are you doing? We get paid the same money without knocking ourselves out." Or, "Hey, remember those are college students, not prisoners." No good guard ever intervened once to stop the activities of the bad guards. No good guard ever came a minute late, left a minute early, or publicly complained. In a sense, then, it's the good guard who allows this to happen.

All prisons are cloaked in a veil of secrecy. No one knows what happens in a prison. And when I say no one outside the prison knows, I mean mayors don't know, governors don't know, presidents don't know, and Congressional subcommittees don't know. Prisons are huge places, and if you just walk in you wouldn't know what to see. They could direct you to one part of the prison where everything is clean and rosy and nice, and the prisoners are eating steak for your visit. Prisons have to lift the veil of secrecy. The media and lawyers have to have access to prisons.
Damn straight, though getting good results from this requires a decent society.

Link thanks to Randolf Fritz at Making Light.

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