Obedience or Conscience?

By Nick Galaiga, TWC Media Intern from Cuyahoga Community College

Over seven million people were killed in the Holocaust, a horrific event created and executed by the Nazi regime during World War II. Each one of those seven million people was important to someone, whether he or she was a best friend, a brother, a sister, or a family member.

Many Nazis responsible for carrying out the deaths argued they were following the orders of their superiors.

Is such an argument sufficient to defend such actions?

Sixteen years after the end of World War II, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to test human obedience. The 1961 experiment concluded that people were likely to obey orders if they believed their authority figure had a legal or moral basis to be in that position.

He suggested that a human being was likely to obey the commands of a person with higher authority, even if that meant killing another human being. However, the interesting conclusion from this experiment was that this seemingly consistent response to authority was learned, not something we are born with.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo later stated that “people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if those roles are strongly stereotyped.” Zimbardo theorized that people could reach a state of consciousness in which they became so immersed in the norms of a group that they lost a sense of personal identity and responsibility.

These men, whose work is often cited in psychology, and their research were in my mind when I visited the United States Holocaust Museum this past weekend.

I was enraged as I watched videos of Holocaust survivors tell their stories about the horrifying and indelible experiences that they witnessed in concentration camps. I watched a video of one survivor who remembered Germans forcing Jews to dig their own graves, lie in the grave and then be buried alive. At times, parents would be forced into a ditch with their child at their side and then shot.

An interviewer asked a former Nazi who he would shoot first, the child or the parent? He replied that he would shoot the adult first. The child would not fully grasp their parent dying next to them, but for a parent to have to watch their child be killed would be too much, according to the former Nazi.

The fact that the former Nazi had the intellectual capability to, even on some level, empathize with the Jewish parents suggests he was aware of his actions. As such, Zimbardo’s theory of groupthink, where a person loses personal identity and responsibility, might be dismissable.

The former Nazi also showed emotion when talking about this experience, further illustrating he understood the gravity and consequences of his actions.

From a neurological point of view, we know people will feel pressured to obey authority figures, as outlined in the Milgram experiment. We also know people will either consciously or unconsciously conform to stereotypical social roles, as Zimbardo concluded in his experiment. But I firmly believe that under no circumstances can actions be accepted or blame be deferred due to groupthink, authority pressure, or the pressure to conform.

Nazis tried to justify their actions as either obeying orders or being unable to psychologically separate from their stereotypical prison roles.

We as Americans can continue to learn from the Nazis and from the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. The lesson: anyone can perform an action that we would logically consider immoral or unjustified. If we are not constantly challenging our socially ingrained beliefs and values and pushing ourselves to be better human beings every day, then we can succumb to actions of ignorance.

It might seem easy to say you wouldn’t, but what if everyone around you was saying you could?
As the Chicago Commission on Race Relations stated, “The past is of value only as it aids in understanding the present, and an understanding of the facts of the problem…is the first step toward its solution.”

We must learn from the past and vow to never repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. For every person in our country who is homeless, living in poverty, or in some way being oppressed, it is our duty as American citizens to lend a helping hand.

Each of these people is a best friend, a brother, a sister, or a family member in need.

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