Aspects of Vaisnava Theory & Practice
Raising Our Spiritual Standards
Chapter 4
On Pondering Zimbardo’s Hell
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Part 6

It only takes a few rotten people to create a rotten experience for scores of others

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

The ratio of one part sadists to two parts good guys is not a consolation. Had the experiment gone 14 days we would very likely have a significant increase in sadists. Still, taking it at face value, the real conclusion is that it only takes a few rotten people to create a rotten experience for scores of others. The ratio of Nazis to non-Nazis was small also, but they wreaked havoc on millions. And their ambition was to bring the whole planet under their sway, which, incidentally, is our goal too. Point to ponder: Will we use Krishna consciousness to enslave the planet or to liberate it?

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

This is the natural result of one giving up one’s power. This is always a choice, for no one can take away our power, we have to give it away. But once we do it, the dispirited states described above follow in due course. In the worse cases, it culminates in either a vengeful lashing out, a nervous breakdown, or suicide. Possibly all three.

These healthy citizens were so disempowered by the situation they could not rise up and object to the negative trend of the experiment. At this point we should note that it is the healthy that give the most extreme reaction to dysfunctional dynamics, because the dysfunctional feel right at home in their own element. Unless they are personally in a crisis they never really face the reality that they are dysfunctional. But the more one is balanced, the more easily irrational situations affect one.

The process of coaxing us to give up our power can be subtle. It may be wrested away by the dynamics, in which one voluntarily, innocently goes along. But one can keep his power and dignity even in the most extreme circumstances. This is shown in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp in World War II. It showed in stark contrast how some prisoners gave up their power to their captors and some did not, though they lived side by side in the same horrid conditions.

The philosophy may be used to coax away our authority over ourselves. Trnad api sunicena is the favorite referent for those who want to see us powerless. “Cooperate for Srila Prabhupada” is another tool for eliciting our willing, blind compliance.

Arjuna had the opposite experience. He began in a powerless condition and became powerful after hearing from Krishna. We can use this as a kind of litmus test of the dynamics we experience. When we are made to feel powerful, when we feel our fundamental rights as human beings are being respected, we know that is the right dynamic, Krishna conscious. Here is one of several instances where Prabhupada talks about the same point:

After describing Bhagavad-gita, He said, yathecchasi tatha kuru. He does not force. That is not good. Forceful thing will not stand. Just like we advise,

“Rise early in the morning.”

This is advised. Not that I have to force everyone. I may force one day, two days, but if one does not practice it, then simply force is useless. So similarly, Krishna does not force anyone to leave this material world. (Lecture 1973) When we are made to feel powerless, forced, intimidated, that is indicative of the dysfunctional program.

“Forceful thing will not stand.”

(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.” 

The saying is correct, but it does not mean we in ISKCON have no alternative. We can take positive action in an unpleasant situation; after all, we are not behind bars. We do have the opportunity to choose our environment. We simply have to take back our power from whomever we gave it away to and do the needful for Lord Caitanya, like the author of the Foreword. Krishna consciousness means to have the strength of character to respond appropriately to life’s situations.

In this case, one must seek a better situation for one’s spiritual life. Living under the “shelter” of irrational authorities cannot be justified by any amount of turning the philosophy this way and that. Not even “Cooperate for Srila Prabhupada.” In the dysfunctional system “Cooperate for Srila Prabhupada” means agree to go crazy for Srila Prabhupada. But he himself does not want us to go crazy. He want us to go sane. That was the whole point of his “Who is Crazy?” pamphlet. Cooperate for him means to cooperate with what is favorable for Krishna consciousness; indeed noncooperation with authoritarianism is cooperating for Srila Prabhupada. If devotees cannot find humanitarian dynamics within the society, they should move on. Don’t empower the dysfunctional system by participating in it. Move on. Consider having to move on Krishna’s test of your faith and courage, a growth opportunity. His tests are not signs of His rejecting us; He is qualifying us for His service. Join like-minded persons who want to stick with the process and move on. This may actually help our leaders to come to their senses.

(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: 

Not only prison situations can cause upright citizens to show their brutal and ugly side. It goes on in institutions of all kinds or in pockets within otherwise stable institutions, even in families. Authoritarianism can happen in the classroom or on the sankirtana party, wherever there is power to be had. It is just a question of degree. I have had it happen between my doctor and me. He thought his “authority” meant he had the right to make my decisions for me.

Whenever someone aggresses on us, attempting to take our power by covert or overt means, we are in a dysfunctional situation. Going along with it means that it will happen again and again; and cooperating empowers it to get worse the next time around.

One of the giveaway signs of dysfunctional dynamics is when our freedom to express ourselves is just not there, we cannot speak our doubts freely and completely for fear of repercussion. Also, if you are hit with trnad api sunicena to gag you, or if you are criticized for being upset, rather than being empathized with, you are caught in a dysfunctional or impersonal dynamic. Another sign is when respect for authority is deemed more important than what you have to say. Then “etiquette” is used to shut you up.

While the sastra enjoins that we must respect spiritual authority, that respect cannot become the very obstacle to expressing our doubts and emotions, our misgivings and so on. And a genuine spiritual authority will want to ensure that it doesn’t. A genuine spiritual authority knows that revealing your mind is essential for the true dynamic of Krishna consciousness to take place. It is a symptom of a loving exchange. Look at Arjuna coming apart completely in front of Krishna. True, Krishna scolded him, but not for his state or presentation, but for his unenlightened understanding. He never criticized Arjuna that “You are upset. You are emotional. We can talk later.” Prabhupada never did that either, because it is more a gag, a roadblock to communications, than anything else. In dysfunctional dealings, however, this line of unreasoning is used frequently.

(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.”

They were not deviant persons, but that is beside the point. What was the outcome? And the prison environment is hardly to blame. It is something in human nature, because the problem of dysfunctional authority is not limited to the prison situation.

Zimbardo hits it head on when he concludes that his six day hell showed the potential of social and institutional settings to move men to evil, either monstrous or trivial. However, we must keep in mind that when religious belief is involved, the potential for monstrous evil is compounded. As Pascal observed: “Men never do evil so willfully and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

History validates his view several times over. Even the sky is not the limit when we can rationalize our envy and hatred of another in God’s name. Then dysfunctional behavior becomes the norm; and normal behavior is viewed as abnormal.

(30) 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.” 

In an institution, the tendency is to want no waves. To that extent, all institutions are comparable to a prison. For the sake of keeping oil on the waters, the wave makers get the brunt of authority. This sends a message to the group members “Don’t make waves. it is best to grin and bear the unacceptable.” This causes them to shrink back upon themselves in an attempt to be as small a target as possible.

In Our Mission (Raising Our Spiritual Standards), Ernest Becker was quoted on how the saintly person does not cause people to shrink back upon themselves; he does not coerce and intimidate them. Rather he opens them and teaches them to open others in turn. He is talking about empowerment being the genuine spiritual experience. That is our system of parampara. If this dynamic of empowering others is lost, though the philosophy itself remains intact, then, because the vital role of parampara is corrupted or dysfunctional, the parampara is lost.

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