In light of the Talbot Boys dispute, I thought a look at the Zimbardo Stanford University prison experiment would be enlightening. Male participants were recruited and told they would participate in a two-week prison simulation. 24 applicants (Stanford University students) were accepted whose test results predicted they would be the most psychologically stable. They were physically healthy, predominantly white and middle class. The group was intentionally selected to exclude those with criminal backgrounds, psychological impairments, or medical problems. Prisoners and guards were selected by a coin flip.
Zimbardo instructed the guards to disrespect the prisoners in various ways intended to diminish the prisoners’ individuality. With no control, prisoners learned they had little effect on what happened to them, ultimately causing them to stop responding, and give up. Quick to realize that the guards were the highest in the hierarchy, prisoners began to accept their roles as less important human beings.
The experiment illustrates cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority. And this happened to white guys at the very top of America’s meritocracy. Which brings us to slavery and slaveowners and the Civil War.
With no pride, I can say I come from a long, some would say distinguished line of slave owners, slave dealers and slave breakers. Pretty savage bunch if history is to be believed. There are stories in family lore that may be apocryphal but knowing the bunch that have made it to my generation, I can find abuse and torture of powerless, helpless human beings very probable among the limbs of my family tree. Things like getting drunk and gang raping a slave’s wife and daughters while making families watch, burning nipples and penises on helpless boys and men. Maybe none of that really happened, but I bet it did and I am reminded of this every time I see that statue and wonder how many slaves were abused ‘just for fun’, and how many of them are my relatives.
JENNIFER B. BODINE