Following the herd straight to Hades

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The human race sinks to the lowest level of turpitude not when its members defy the standards of what is thought to be acceptable behavior, but, more often, when they obey them.

Nothing in history has caused greater depravity, deeper injury, than doing one’s duty without question.

The latest evidence that this is axiomatically true comes to us by way of one Ian Mosby, a historian of food and nutrition and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph. While investigating health policy in Canada, he uncovered documents which showed that in the years following the Second World War, federal government officials conducted experiments on aboriginal children to ascertain their nutritional needs. In effect, they deliberately starved their subjects.

The abstract of his research paper makes for some chilling reading:

“Between 1942 and 1952, some of Canada’s leading nutrition experts, in cooperation with various federal departments, conducted an unprecedented series of nutritional studies of Aboriginal communities and residential schools. The most ambitious and perhaps best known of these was the 1947-1948 James Bay Survey of the Attawapiskat and Rupert’s House Cree First Nations. Less well known were two separate long-term studies that went so far as to include controlled experiments conducted, apparently without the subjects’ informed consent or knowledge, on malnourished Aboriginal populations in Northern Manitoba and, later, in six Indian residential schools.

Dr. Mosby explains that the point of his examination is “in part to provide a narrative record of a largely unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government. At the same time, it situates these studies within the context of broader federal policies governing the lives of Aboriginal peoples, a shifting Canadian consensus concerning the science of nutrition, and changing attitudes towards the ethics of biomedical experimentation on human beings during a period that encompassed, among other things, the establishment of the Nuremberg Code of experimental research ethics.”

The news has quite properly stunned the current office holders in Ottawa, who assure themselves that nothing like this could happen today. After all, we are so much more enlightened, so much more evolved than our forebears.

But are we?

All it takes is one goon with a truly bad idea and the authority to enforce it and watch the herd mentality take shape. The rationalizations pour like rain in a thunderstorm: It’s all for a good cause; the ends justify the means; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs; everybody’s doing it, so it must be right; I was just following orders.

Following orders was what senior Nazi officials claimed they were doing when they sent millions of Jews to their death. In a famous string of experiments in the 1960s,  American psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to test the limits of obedience among “average” people – those who were not infused with ideological hatred or political fanaticism. He enlisted 40 men to administer electric shocks to test subjects.

“Each participant took the role of a ‘teacher’ who would then deliver a shock to the ‘student’ every time an incorrect answer was produced,” writes Kendra Cherry in the Psychology section of About.com. “While the participant believed that he was delivering real shocks to the student, the student was actually a confederate in the experiment who was simply pretending to be shocked.

“As the experiment progressed, the participant would hear the learner plead to be released or even complain about a heart condition. Once the 300-volt level had been reached, the learner banged on the wall and demanded to be released. Beyond this point, the learner became completely silent and refused to answer any more questions. The experimenter then instructed the participant to treat this silence as an incorrect response and deliver a further shock.”

Dr. Milgram had expected that less than three per cent of participants would agree to deliver the maximum voltage. But, on the authority of the experimenter, closer to 65 per cent of them did, even though they had every reason to believe they were inflicting serious injury, or worse.

As the German political thinker Hannah Arendt observed in 1963, evil is banal, and blind obedience can make unwitting monsters of us all.

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