Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Varieties Of Dysfunctional Experience
Chapter 3
Dysfunctional Authority; A Study
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Part 3

The happenings within the mock prison were so unpleasant and potentially so dangerous that the entire experiment had to be brought to a premature end after six days rather than the scheduled fourteen

The happenings within the mock prison were so unpleasant and potentially so dangerous that the entire experiment had to be brought to a premature end after six days rather than the scheduled fourteen. Violence and rebellion broke out within less than two days of the start of the experiment. The prisoners ripped off their clothing and their identity numbers, shouted and cursed at the guards, and barricaded themselves inside the cells. The guards put down the rebellion violently, using fire extinguishers, (12) transformed the prisoners’ “rights” into “privileges”, (13) played the prisoners off against one another and systematically harassed them.

(14) One of the prisoners showed such severe symptoms of emotional disturbance (disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying and screaming), after only one day he had to be released.

(15) On the third day a rumor spread through the “prison” about a mass escape plot. This led the superintendent and the guards to take various repressive and preventative steps. On the fourth day, two more prisoners displayed symptoms of severe emotional disturbance and were released: a third developed a psychosomatic rash all over the body and was also released. As time passed, (16) some of the guards seemed to derive great satisfaction from exercising power and behaving in a sadistic manner.

(17) A particularly interesting observation was that the use of force, harassment, and aggression by the guards increased steadily from day to day, in spite of the fact that prisoner resistance declined as time went by. The guards also manifested more indirect displays of power as time went by, such as rapping their sticks against their hands or against the furniture, walking with a swagger, or adopting extravagant postures. The prisoners.

(18) On the other hand,  began to slouch and keep their eyes fixed on the ground.

What seems to have led to the experiment being abandoned was a comment made by Christina Maslach, Zimbardo’s fiancée. She had gone to the prison to help interview the prisoners. While she was there, she saw a line of blindfolded prisoners shuffling along under guard to the toilet. Miss Maslach burst into tears and exclaimed; it is awful what you are doing to those boys!” Naturally, Philip Zimbardo’s heart melted at these words, and the experiment was officially halted the next morning.

(19) Perhaps the most vivid accounts of what it was like to take part in such dehumanizing experience were the diary entries of those directly involved.

(20) Before the experiment one of the guards wrote in his diary that he was a pacifist and so unaggressive that he could not imagine maltreating any other living being. By the third day, he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the power to manipulate people.

(21) Before the prisoners received visitors, he warned them not to complain unless they wanted the visit to come to an abrupt end.

(22) What he really liked, he said, was having almost total control over everything that was said and done.

(23) On the fifth day, problems arose because a new prisoner refused to eat his sausage. The guard’s diary at this point reads as follows: “We throw him into the Hole ordering him to hold sausages in each hand. . . We decide to play upon prisoner solidarity and tell the new one that all the others will be deprived of visitors if he does not eat his dinner. . . I walk by and slam my stick into the Hole door . . . I am very angry at this prisoner for causing discomfort and trouble for the others. I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn’t eat. I let the food slide down his face.

(24) I hated myself for making him eat but I hated him more for not eating.”

As we have already noted, the guards became increasingly brutal and aggressive during the course of the experiment, and ignored the warning not to use physical force. However, Zimbardo and his colleagues reported that there were differences in behavior among the guards.

(25) And only about a third of the guards, they felt, were so consistently hostile and degrading to be described as sadistic.

On the other hand, (26) the prisoners became progressively more passive as the days passed, and sank into a state of depression and helplessness.

(27) Perhaps the reason for this was that they began to realize there was very little they could do to improve matters or control the environment. As the old saying goes, “There’s no point in banging your head against a brick wall.”

(28) Despite its premature end Zimbardo’s experiment showed that brutal, ugly prison situations can develop even when upright citizens play the parts of the prisoners and guards.

(29) The dehumanization which occurred in the Stanford experiment could hardly be attributed to the “deviant personalities” of those involved; the most natural explanation was that it was the prison environment which was mainly responsible for the participants’ behavior. In Zimbardo’s own words, his study revealed “the power of social, institutional forces to make most men engage in evil deeds.”

But how similar was the mock prison to a real prison? The evidence from those with first-hand experience of real prison is somewhat mixed. Prisoners in the maximum-security wing of Rhode Island Penitentiary said that they recognized the reactions of the mock prisoners as corresponding to the confused and over-emotional reactions of many first offenders. (31) A remark by one ex-convict throws some light on the passivity of the mock prisoners: “The only way to really make it with the bosses (in Texas prisons) is to withdraw into yourself, both physically and mentally–literally making yourself as small as possible. it is another way to dehumanize you. They want you to make no waves in prison.”

Before going on to discuss the numbered points, some general remarks and observations are in order. Many in ISKCON have conditioned ourselves to reject out of hand everything from the nondevotees. In reality there is both a rational application and an irrational application of this practice. Just as it is wrong to blindly accept, it is also wrong to blindly reject. To a Vaisnava, utility is the principle, therefore the Bhagavatam even quotes a prostitute whom Krishnadasa Kaviraja repeats to establish the highest point in our philosophy–that separation is the ultimate ecstasy.

Yet the temptation to reject is strong. We are a highly idealistic group. We want to believe in the power of Krishna consciousness so much we think, prematurely, that we have risen far beyond human error and failings, despite the data that contradicts this almost daily in our communities. We even twist our intelligence to deny our perceptions. Therefore, we invariably must have a crisis before we act to solve problems which could have been prevented had we been more realistic, commonsensical, and decisive.

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