Why do we follow blindly?

banal evil

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Why did the volunteers who participated in the psychological experiment choose to obey, even though they knew that executing the order could lead to death? Why did Eichmann, who did not believe in anti-Semitic ideology and was just an ordinary person, become the executioner who caused a large number of Jewish deaths during World War II? Why is it that the nice and friendly people around you on weekdays are willing to join the system and change their face when faced with a system that is obviously contrary to common sense? Teacher Wang Yan’s article “Why do we follow blindly? ” describes and analyzes these phenomena of blind obedience that are often seen in history and reality.

The article mentions Arendt’s “banality of evil”. In fact, many participants in evil deeds are not evil people, but ordinary people like you and me, who can also be called good people. But these good people, who only know how to do their jobs without reflection, are easily persuaded by the authorities and the strong, and go with the public. Their numbness and indifference are used by the authorities and eventually become part of the evil.
Therefore, it is not enough to be a “good person”, but also to be a “real person” as Eileen Chang said. Wang Yan understands “real people” in this way: “Beyond social rank and prejudice, not restricted by customs or laws, and complete human nature with conscience.”


Why do we follow blindly?

Written by: Wang Yan

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During the epidemic, I occasionally saw a movie “Experimenter” (Experimenter, 2015). The story took place in the laboratory of social psychology at Yale University in 1961. The Jewish psychologist Stanley Milgram (Stanley Milgram, 1933-1984) conducted a series of electric shock experiments, the purpose of which was to analyze the psychological process of the German massacre of Jews . This experiment is very famous and strange, and it has had a profound impact on social psychology. The film reproduces the whole process of the experiment.

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The movie “Lab”

The experimental team advertised to recruit volunteers of different ethnicities and educational backgrounds between the ages of 20 and 50, and paid a fee when they showed up. The two are in a group, and the roles are assigned by drawing lots. One is a “teacher” and the other is a “student.” The experimental assistant first sent the “teacher” a test paper with one word in the left column and four words in the right column. The teacher read it to the students through the microphone, and the students wrote down the correspondence between the left and right columns, and the experiment began. The experimental assistant wore a white lab coat, took an electric shock controller, adjusted it to 45 volts and gave the teacher an electric shock, so that he could feel the taste of electric shock. The voltage is low so it’s not too painful, but it’s not bad either. The teacher begins to pronounce each word in sequence, and the students answer the four words corresponding to it. If the answer is correct, continue, and if the answer is wrong, the teacher will press the button to shock the students. The voltage starts at 45 volts, increases by one grid at a time, and stops at 135 volts high voltage.

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The movie “Lab”

Whenever a student answers a question incorrectly, the teacher presses the electric shock button, and hears a scream from the next door, and even hears a beating on the wall. The student said that he had a heart attack, and he couldn’t take it anymore, so stop the experiment. The teacher hesitated, then turned to ask the expert who wears Dabai if he could stop.

The expert replied indifferently: Please continue, this experiment needs you to continue.

Teacher: The person next door said he has a heart attack. Who is responsible?

Expert: We are in charge, it is necessary for you to proceed, there is no choice.

The vast majority of volunteers will obey and continue to pressurize. As long as they ask to be clear more than four times, the “experts” will be called off according to the rules. But the vast majority of people will continue until the next door screams and finally falls silent and does not answer. The results of the first round of experiments were unexpected, almost everyone raised the voltage to 300 volts, exceeding the pre-agreed 130 volts, and even 62.5% of the people continued to raise the voltage to the meter’s limit of 450 volts before giving up.

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It needs to be explained here that there is a scam in this experiment. One of the two in a group was a fake volunteer, an actor hired by the experimental team. In the lottery, only the “teacher” sign was prepared, and the experimental assistant always asked the real volunteer to draw lots first, so that he would definitely get the “teacher” sign. The assistant pretended to give each of them a check, and the real volunteer thought that the other was also an outsider. The student played by the actor was wailing next door. In fact, the electric shock did not occur, but the teacher thought that the student suffered from the electric shock. The experimental assistants put on white overalls and acted as scientific authorities, issuing orders to skeptical volunteers, reminding them of their commitments and not taking accidental responsibility, so that the vast majority of people complied. Only one or two people offered to go next door to see the situation of the students. This experiment is highly controversial, because it involves deception, and the participants in the experiment are kept in the dark, which is against scientific ethics. However, the experiment did raise a thought-provoking question. The volunteers are ordinary people like us, who do not care whether they are good or evil, and have no grievances or hatreds, love and hatred with the “students”. Once you have the tools of punishment in your hands and know you don’t have to take responsibility, you will harm strangers. Of course, everyone will hesitate at this moment, endure moral torture in their hearts, and choose between a dilemma: either obey, harm the other party, honor the promise, and live up to the remuneration; or refuse, return the remuneration, and walk away. But the experimental remuneration is only $4.50 (equivalent to more than $20 today), which is not enough to induce people to do things against their intentions, and the argument of enticing is untenable. But the reality is that the vast majority of people choose to obey, and their willingness to resist “experts” is extremely fragile. They compromise again and again, and finally give up their moral bottom line. Why do sane adults follow authority blindly against their will? The purpose of the experiment is to explain this psychological phenomenon.

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The movie “Lab”

While the experiment was underway, a trial of the century was being staged on another continent. In Jerusalem in April 1961, the nascent Israel publicly tried the notorious Holocaust executioner Eichmann. The US television network broadcast the trial in its entirety, causing widespread concern. The public began to expect to see a monstrous demon, through whose hands millions of Jews were sent into the gas chambers, nothing more heinous than that. But everyone was disappointed. The defendant who appeared in the bulletproof glass cabinet was an ordinary middle-aged man with ordinary appearance, and there was nothing special about his conversation and style. The hearing that followed was even more frustrating. This man did not have strong Nazi beliefs, and his philosophy of life was opportunism.

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The movie “Eichmann”

Defense lawyers presented evidence to the court that the young Eichmann had little enthusiasm for politics and was bent on finding a stable job and earning more money. But his career got off to a rough start, and he might have lost his job if his mother hadn’t known a few Jewish businessmen. His first job was as a salesman for a Jewish company, and he had Jewish girlfriends, trivia that defense attorneys used to prove Eichmann had no anti-Semitic thoughts. Indeed, Eichmann was mediocre, not as ambitious as Hitler and Goebbels, full of racist and chauvinistic minds. When he joined the Nazi Party, he saw the wind and saw that it was rising, and that he could reap the benefits in the future, so he joined the party like the young people around him. His sales performance in the company was mediocre, and he had no future in sight, but the Nazi party really came to power. Eichmann abandoned business and joined the SS. With a university law diploma, he was promoted to colonel in the civilian ranks, responsible for deporting and transporting Jews . Arendt said that Eichmann was like a leaf in the wind in the turbulent era, but he was swept into history by a whirlwind without knowing it.

The lawyer’s defense Eichmann had neither political purpose nor utilitarian motive, but just carried out orders from superiors. Indeed, he is a small military official in the national bureaucracy, and his daily work is to upload and distribute, and he does not personally kill. During the Nazi regime, his work complied with the Nuremberg law, a law-abiding citizen who did his duty for the country, so he pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors ask Eichmann: Do you know that your day-to-day work leads to the massacre of countless Jews? Of course he knew, but he argued that he didn’t agree with Tuju in his heart. Defense attorneys cite an example of Eichmann being dispatched to the Eastern Front to inspect the “final settlement.” Near the Polish border, the SS had Jews in the concentration camps dig tunnels, then machine guns fired in batches and buried in the pits. After the observation, Eichmann got out of the car and vomited on the way back, and threw up his lunch, proving that Eichmann was not sympathetic.

But back in the Berlin office, he carefully studied the progress of the massacre in the east, estimating that its method was too inefficient and consuming ammunition to complete the “final settlement” as scheduled. At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Eichmann reported to the senior officials of various government departments the process of the “final settlement” of the empire, pointing out that the massacres in various places had technical shortcomings and drawbacks, and suggested that new methods should be used to improve the efficiency of “solving”. Data comparison between new and old methods is shown. During the reporting process, he stated in a professional, objective and calm manner without subjective emotion. Using “destroy” to avoid any suggestion of “slaughter” is as if everyone is discussing the destruction of a batch of goods. Some officials felt uncomfortable with the descriptions of the gas chamber and crematorium. Eichmann’s routine style affected the atmosphere of the meeting. The participants knew what they were, but they were as calm as him.

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The movie “Eichmann”

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The Nazis systematically exterminated Jews in the name of the state. In an extreme crime, how should a middle and lower-ranking officer be sentenced? What was his motive for the crime? How to calculate his guilt? What is the sin of being ordered to perform the daily work of dispatching and transporting Jews? The key to explaining these legal dilemmas for Yale’s psychological experiments is to describe psychological motivations. For example, it is understandable that volunteers do not know the purpose of the experiment in advance and are paid to participate in scientific experiments. But from the moment the “student” is punished, normal people will suspect that there are ethical issues in the experiment. The “student” is a volunteer applying for the job, so why should he receive an electric shock for answering the wrong question? Does $4.50 Pay for the Pain of Electric Shock? Not to mention having a heart attack, which can be life-threatening unexpectedly. Dabai ordered an electric shock, and a normal mind should question that the order is unreasonable and illegal. But most people think that the famous Ivy League schools do scientific experiments, and they are still widely advertised in the society. How can it be illegal? Experts have repeatedly stressed that there is no need to be responsible, so they put pressure on it against their will. But while begging to stop, the other side ordered to continue, the volunteers kept hesitating and repeating, should they offend the Yale scientists to leave and eat their own words? Or is it more important to believe that experts will not have a problem, this experiment is more important? Between the uncertainties, the volunteers gave in little by little, giving up their moral intuition step by step, until they broke through the bottom line of their conscience and resolutely obeyed orders.

The voice of authority, the guidance of public opinion, and the orders of the strong are like the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, dazzling and powerful; while the call of conscience in the depths of the heart is like a faint candlelight in the darkness. The dizziness of the strong light outside is enough to cover the weak candlelight inside. However, the dazzling light is always ignored in an instant, while the fire of conscience shines on people’s hearts for a long time. Those who harm others will endure the self-blame of conscience. Only by listening to the call of the heart and sticking to moral intuition can people live with dignity and like people. Zhang Ailing said: There are many good people in this world, but few real people. It means that there are too many bad and good people around us, but very few people with true temperament. Neighbor Aunt Wang, police officer Xiao Zhang, and Aunt Liu, the neighborhood committee member, are usually peaceful and harmonious. Hello, hello. How can I become another person by wearing a red armband and wearing a white protective suit? Like a ferocious spirit, like a devil possessed. Human nature has a desire to perform, and when you wear the symbols of the character, you think that you are a “corner”, and the more you act, the more you get into the play, and you forget who you are. After taking off his head, he became a good neighbor and a good old man again. If you can feel your conscience before acting at the cusp of the storm, you will be considered a real person. Zhang’s “real person” may have another layer. Most Chinese people have a group mentality. Every era has an overwhelming collective consciousness. Individuals are always assimilated by the times, so there are “post-80s”, “post-90s”, “00 Intergenerational cultures such as “post-generation” can be considered “real people” if they still maintain their personal temperament and stand out in the big era. The experiment at Yale University lasted for many years, and there was only one person with a true temperament. A middle-aged man yelled at Dabai, cursing him for being inhuman, heartless, and punching and kicking. We may think he is of low quality and has a bad temper. But feel the conscience, the so-called “experts” let a volunteer to shock another ordinary person for no reason, regardless of the underlying disease, the pain is unbearable, don’t they deserve a beating? Not to mention helping Zhou to abuse him, even if he refused politely, he was also showing indifference.

Arendt analyzes Eichmann’s mental journey in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Unlike the general belief that once Eichmann strayed into the SS, he could not help himself. In fact, if the slaughter of Jews is against his personal wishes, an SS officer at the school level can resign without danger to his life. Even if you stay in the SS, you can apply for a transfer, but it is not good to be transferred to the eastern front. But he chose to carry out the task. This job of dispatching Jews from all over the world gave him the opportunity to take his wife to occupied Paris, under the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées, to taste French red wine in the sunset, to satisfy a little bit of poor vanity. Eichmann defended that he would be filled if he did not do the job, and that the Holocaust would not be affected in any way by his absence. But the Jerusalem court tried Eichmann, the non-Nazi government. Not only did he take part in the Holocaust, but he was active and overweight. It is impossible to demand that officers who disagree with the Nazis assassinate Hitler like Colonel Stauffenberg did, but if middle and lower-level officials disobey, sabotage, or delay discounts, many Jews will be spared, and Eichmann cannot escape the blame.

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When we say “evil” or “sin”, we are thinking about behaviors such as bad conduct, cunning and mean, bad intentions, long premeditated plans, and intentional harm. But it is rare in daily life. How many big villains can you encounter in your life? How many years does it take for Hitler, Goebbels and the like to produce one? Everyday evil is unintentional. I also watched an American independent film “Compliance” (2012). First, it was a very small documentary, based on real cases, with an average artistic level, but the plot was related to the topic of discussion. A perverted liar posing as a police officer called a fast-food burger restaurant, saying a young waitress had stolen money from a customer, and ordered a manager to assist the police in a body search to find the stolen goods. The middle-aged female manager pretended to be a law-abiding citizen and agreed to assist the police. At first, she asked a female colleague to accompany her to the back office to search for the girl, but found nothing, and reported it to the fake police on the phone. The request on the other end of the phone went a little too far, asking the girl to take off her underwear for inspection. The “police” was entangled on the phone, and the number of customers in the store began to increase. The female manager dealt with the business while perfunctory police, so it was difficult to separate, so she had to let the male and female waiters take turns to cooperate with the investigation, and even called in her boyfriend who was working on the construction site. The victim waitress was eager to confess her innocence and actively cooperated with the body search. The compromise between the two sides went beyond the bottom line step by step. The liar used the phone to manipulate the male waiter to strip the girl insultingly again and again, until the manager’s boyfriend took the opportunity to sexually assault it.

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The movie “Obey”

The police quickly solved the case, and the crook has committed seven other crimes. The TV station heard the news and interviewed, and the female manager of the fast food restaurant dressed up on TV. The host asked why she was fooled, and she asked back: shouldn’t law-abiding citizens cooperate with the police in handling cases? Then he described the tricks of the liar with great enthusiasm, as if showing off his experience of being deceived. The host asked again: The deception is not very clever, and his request is obviously contrary to common sense. You didn’t realize what was wrong at the time? The manager was stunned for a moment, and replied: I really don’t feel right, but there are so many customers at the counter, and the business is busy. This is not an excuse, it is honesty. Several waiters in the fast food restaurant served customers at the front desk, and perfunctory police in the backstage, giving scammers an opportunity in their rush, and unreasonably asking them to humiliate the waitresses collectively. This is what Arendt called “the banality of evil”. Ordinary people are not motivated by sinister intentions, but are busy and conscientious in their busyness, without thinking or reflection. Like a hollow man, ignoring his inner conscience. Authoritarianism often exploits numbness and indifference to drive ordinary people to collectively engage in great evil.

Arendt shows the various legal dilemmas of Eichmann’s trial in “Eichmann in Jerusalem”. Can Eichmann be convicted of war crimes? War crimes were applied under international law between belligerents, and the Holocaust, which took place in the Reich and German-occupied territories, was genocide. Can Eichmann be convicted of murder? The crime of murder falls under the category of criminal law, and the jurisdiction is within the sovereignty of the state. It is aimed at individual citizens who challenge the security of the community. Eichmann had no personal motive for murder, nor could it be considered a threat to national security, and the Jerusalem court had no jurisdiction over the German criminal case, so Eichmann could only be convicted of crimes against humanity. In order to keep his official position and satisfy his own vanity and material desires, he participated in the extremely evil crime of annihilating humanity. Since you do not allow human beings to coexist with you on the earth for petty profit, then human beings do not allow your existence, and you must be hanged!

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In the great spiritual atmosphere of the Age of Enlightenment, Victor Hugo created “Les Miserables”, creating two opposing characters – Jean Valjean and Javert. The two men’s worldviews are sharply opposed, and the dramatic conflict between them illuminates Hugo’s view of human nature. Jean Valjean was a convict serving a 19-year prison sentence. After his release, he lost his soul and stole silverware from the house of the bishop who had treated him well. The bishop repaid his grievances with virtue, and Jean Valjean was influenced by generosity and kindness, and he did good deeds throughout his life. Javert is a law-abiding sheriff who takes the police profession as his lifelong belief and scrupulously fulfills his duties. He hunted down the wanted criminal Jean Valjean, but found that a convict who was lower than the bottom of the society had a benevolent heart. He would rather kill himself than destroy his enemies, and would rather betray society and finally have a conscience. Jean Valjean was an angel illuminated by conscience, to be enshrined on the altar of virtue. Although Javert was moved by kindness, he did not dare to violate the laws of the world, and he must be arrested and brought to justice. Javert’s life-long creed is that subordinates obey their superiors, and even if the superior’s order is contrary to common sense, it should not be argued. Maybe one day he submits his resignation to his boss, but how does he resign to God in the end? Hugo wrote: God, the heart of man, is a conscience that resists hypocrisy; whenever the heart encounters a false absolute, the conscience will guide the mind to recognize the true absolute, and it will always be human nature and the unchanging heart that will win in the end.

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Jean Valjean in the film Les Miserables (2012)

Javert believed all his life in court decisions, principles of power, political creeds, codes and kingship, social justice and public truth, which were all reduced to rubble and ashes before the angelic purity of Jean Valjean’s mind. Once Javert was awakened, he was so ashamed of the pursuit of his life that he threw himself into the turbulent whirlpool of the Seine. Hugo is best at the juxtaposition of the sublime and the absurd to form a stark contrast. Jean Valjean’s status is humble but his soul is noble, Javert worships authority but his morals are despicable, human nature is noble but society is unfair. “Real people” do not depend on birth and educational background, but beyond social rank and prejudice, not restricted by customs or laws, and complete human nature with conscience. Jean Valjean followed only one rule of life: love, and loving others made him otherworldly and supremely good. This is the foundation of St. Paul’s thought in the Bible’s New Testament. People live in a secular kingdom and have external obligations to obey laws and customs, but they must obey a higher internal principle—love their neighbor as themselves . It is also Kant’s interpretation of the Enlightenment: people legislate for themselves out of free will, no longer obey the teachings of others, and bravely use their own reason to enjoy freedom in the end.


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