adapting to an environment in which some kind of wrong is the norm

The current (May 2008) issue of the Shambhala Sun has a very provocative Q&A with Robert Jay Lifton, titled Finding Light in the Darkness.

Q: “After studying Nazi doctors, you said that socializing people to do evil is relatively easy. But I feel I’d never do what those Nazi doctors, for example, did. Am I wrong?”

A: “You may be right. Socialization to killing is a grave danger, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to resist. It means that resistance takes an exceptional moral imagination, and here and there I’ve encountered that. In the case of the Nazis, much of the dirty work was done by people who weren’t fanatical ideologues. They were people who were brought into and adapted to an environment in which some kind of wrong was the norm. The ability to resist often had to do with understanding in advance what the Nazis were about, and therefore anticipating what an adaptation to them would entail.”

Robert Lifton was kind in his answer. Nevertheless it goes very deep, and speaks to the extraordinary effort it takes to jump out of the bath of societal consensus reality, whether that is about Iraq (since 2001 at least), Israel/Palestine (since 1967 at least), global warming (I shudder to think how our grandchildren will see us), or about whatever it is I’m still actively ignorant.

A well-known related study is Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment.

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