Viewpoint: Corrupt leaders convince good people to do bad things
One seldom mentioned lesson of history applicable in America today is that those who are being manipulated are often confident they are acting of their own free will.
For example, I presented my students with the question: why would so many good German people allow the brutal murder of millions of Jews; and, what lesson can we learn from studying this event? Was there something unusual about the German people that evoked an evil tendency? To demonstrate, my classes examined the work of psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, and American History teacher Ron Jones.
At the time of Milgram's experiment, Adolf Eichmann’s trial was conducted in Jerusalem. Eichmann was a German bureaucrat, not a soldier, responsible for transporting millions of Jews by rail to death camps. I asked my students if ordinary Americans would follow Eichmann’s example and send civilians to a death camp similar to those in Nazi Germany? No one thought they would. The Milgram experiment revealed that community members could harm or kill their neighbors if a trusted leader told them to.
Professor Philip Zimbardo found in his famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” that anonymous volunteer guards, chosen at random, would commit atrocious acts to unknown inmates simply to be part of the “privileged” group, especially if placed in an environment of like-minded people.
History teacher Ron Jones created a lesson, “The Wave”—an experiment—to give his students the experience of being in a “special” group. And then gauge their behavior. To his shock, he could manipulate them into doing outrageous acts to other students throughout the school. Given their “priveleged status” in school, his students showed him unquestioned loyalty reminiscent of Germans under Hitler. Amazingly, the best and brightest students were easily manipulated into committing heinous acts for the privilege of being special.
Our discussion of these famous experiments revealed a stark revelation: my students learned how good people can be convinced to mistreat their neighbors for the feeling of being special. Germans turned their backs and committed unspeakable acts to their neighbors simply by being part of the “in” group.
Like Eichmann, “citizens of free will” could be hateful to their neighbors because they felt superior. They would march, fly flags, hold rallies, and claim patriotism and righteous indignation to those who questioned them. They could turn their backs on others for the right to feel superior. In many cases, like Germans today, they would live to regret what they had done. My students also learned from these examples that obedience to authority is ingrained into human nature.
As I write this, Europe commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are stark reminders of how a forceful leader—with ill intent—can manipulate good people into saying or committing horrible depravities.