I’ve been thinking a lot lately about every day evil.
I don’t mean atrocious, terrible evil like baby-rape, dolphin slaying, off-shore oil drilling, or girl’s T-shirts saying stuff like “Daddy’s Little Consumer Whore”. I mean the sort of evil that regular people commit simply because they don’t have the guts to stand up and say no. The kind of little evils we commit from peer pressure, or personal uncertainty, or fear of losing our jobs.
A man named Stanley Milgram once wondered why the Nazis had done what they did. Not the big orchestrators of the holocaust, but the regular joes who ended up doing terrible things because they were told it was okay.
So he conducted an experiment.
He put an actor in a fake electric chair and then he paid some local people to come in. He told them that whenever the man in the chair answered wrong, they had to give an electric shock which would increase by 15 V each time. The man in the chair would screech in increasing agony, and would begin begging them to stop the experiment. The dial was creeping closer and closer to the “Danger – lethal” range. When the subject wanted to stop giving shocks (usually well over the 300 V level), Milgram would tell them that they had no choice.
This of course was not true. They were physically free to walk out of the room at any time. The only thing forcing them to torture another person was the man in the coat telling them to do so. The fourth time the person wanted to stop, they were told they could.
Even though they could have, no one stopped without permission. Less than half of the people ever achieved permission to leave. The majority went on to give lethal levels of shock to the actor in the fake chair three times.
But maybe, you might argue, these people sensed that it was all an act?
So someone did the experiment again, only this time they were genuinely shocking a little puppy. 20 out of 26 people continued to shock the puppy right up to the end of the experiment. Of the few who insisted on stopping, all were men. The rest of the men and all of the women continued to shock the poor puppy, some weeping as they did so, because the man in the lab coat told them to.
Think about it yourself, before you judge – have you ever done something you felt was a little wrong, because your boss told you to at work? Or because the people around you assured you that it was normal or acceptable, or outright told you that your beliefs were wrong? I’m not talking about fatally shocking people. Just little things that conflicted with your personal set of morals.
I know I have.
The dog training world largely consists of two warring factions. There are the “positive” dog trainers, who have actually read books on Psychology and have learned that reward is much more powerful than punishment. Then there is the older school of thought,which talks a lot about “earning the dog’s respect” and “tone of voice”. They use choke chains and other physical methods to enforce their will on the dog.
In my previous job, we tried to merge both schools of thought as best we could. For the most part, I was allowed to try positive methods first. But some things were non-negotiable.
For the first time since I was a small child, I found myself using a “chain collar” (because “choke chain” sounds too negative, y’know). My own dog has never had such a collar. His training was entirely reward-based, with the occasional scolding for serious infractions. But I didn’t have a choice in my job – at least, not if I wanted to keep my job. Not only was I using them on a daily basis, but I was instructing the volunteers who raise the puppies in the art of doing so.
I found my abilities and my confidence as a dog trainer disintegrating.
When you have the power to inflict discomfort on another creature for not obeying your will, you find yourself using that power. When you have that power, you find you don’t need patience or calmness. It becomes easy – too easy – to take out your frustrations on the confused animal at the end of the leash.
Here’s another secret – some dog trainers feel that the best way to train a dog to retrieve something is to pinch their ear until they are screaming and bleeding – and then put the object in their mouth and release the ear. After a few weeks of this, the dog learns that grabbing the object makes the torture stop, and they begin to lunge desperately for something to retrieve.
The old-style trainers aren’t monsters; they didn’t like torturing dogs. But in their mind, they thought they “had to” because they found it difficult to believe that any other method could be as effective. But they were willing to try other methods, and so I was allowed to reward-retrieve my dogs. It worked fine. But the day would have come when I would have been told to pinch a dog instead, for whatever reason.
Here’s the thing – I would have done it.
I loved my job. I wanted to keep my job. I would have doubted myself, and trusted them.
I was upset about being laid off, but now I am glad I got out before that happened. Now I have the perspective to say “No, I will never do that.” If someone tells me to in the future, I will say no, and hang my job. I think I will be a better and happier person now than I was when I was trying to please people with different ideas, and a different set of morals.
I don’t ever want to find myself in that position again.