Five Steps to Tyranny – Documentary Notes
Reading time: ~4 min.
One of the greatest threats we face are the masses of normal people conditioned to blindly obey authority. This documentary explains the five steps that are common to tyrannical organizations throughout history and countries.
Step one: ‘us’ and ‘them’
Seeing our group as superior, and theirs as inferior. Instill the tribal instinct that we all possess.
A teacher tests 3rd grade students (9 y.o.). She told them they wouldn’t know what it feels like to be discriminated because of a innate difference of which they have no control of. So she showed them. She told them that blue-eyed students were smarter and stronger. Brown-eyed students could not drink water from the fountain and would have to let the blue-eyed leave class first. They could not be with each other. Immediately the effects were felt. “Blues” became arrogant, content, while “brown” became sad, introverted and angry. Some students that were friends the day before, fought.
Step two: obey orders
There is an experiment where a guy goes into a train and asks someone if he could have their seat. When asked why he simply deflects the question with an answer like “I was just wondering if it was possible for you to give me your seat” or “do you not want to give me your seat?” ~50% gave him their seat. Still more astonishing is that when he did exactly the same with but was accompanied by a guy dressed as a cop, but who didn’t say a word, the percentage of people that gave him their seat rose to 100%. Tyrannical danger appears when people start obeying, when people can be made to act on the impulse of obeying an authority figure without questioning, without thinking ‘why?’, ‘why should I do this?’
Prof. Philip Zimbardo says that over the course of human history more crimes have been committed in the name obedience than in the name of disobedience. It’s not the rebels, the unusual deviants, that are a threat to society. The real threats are the ones that command, and the mindlessly obedient people who follow.
Step three: do ‘them’ harm
Can we do harm against others against our conscience? Yes…, yes we can. There was an experiment that involved an authority figure commanding normal people to electrocute people in the name of science. People would do it, even when hearing the screams from the other side, just because the authority figure told them to. A lot of what we don’t do, is just due to the fear of being blamed due to a negative outcome. People don’t go over the speed limit due to fear of being caught (a minority for safety reasons…), they don’t hurt others and destroy things as long as they’re the ones being held accountable for the resulting damage. Remove the responsibility, and see any troubles in causing harm removed.
Another way to make good people do bad things is by giving them an ideology, by giving them rationalizations why it is good to do the bad thing — ‘we’re doing god’s work’, ‘we’re saving our country’, ‘for freedom’, ‘for democracy’. For example in WWII, Germany, Jews were seen as beasts, and less than human creatures that needed to disappear to improve the “arian” race. This rationalization would make it easier to do them harm, because then, they weren’t hurting other people, they were hurting monsters. In an experiment of electrocuting people, when the people that received shocks were described using demeaning terms, the people that gave them shocks, went to higher voltages much more easily. ‘They are pigs’, ‘when you kill rats, you don’t spare the babies (so people wouldn’t feel bad for killing children)’, ‘they are snakes whose heads need to be smashed’ — these are common phrases that are heard in other countries where there are tribal fights.
Another point is that the type of connection between 2 people influences the way they behave with each other. The more similar we feel in relation to someone else, the more likely we are to feel the need to care for them. For example, there was a a small study where a man wore a t-shirt of a football club, and pretended to fall to the ground. He was helped every single time by people of the same club, and not once by people of a rival group (out of a total of 24 times). This relationship was confirmed by larger studies.
Step four: ‘stand up’ or ‘stand by’
For a bad argument to prevail, it needs to remain unchallenged and, for that, disagreement needs to be discouraged as much as possible. In extreme cases disagreement is simply forbidden. This is why freedom of speech and expression is so important — It allows people to challenge tyranical views. Supression of rebelions and of alternative perspectives is how tyranical views stay in power. In order to appease the masses and give the impression of freedom of speech, heated discussion within acceptable topics must be allowed. “You are free to do as we tell you.” As Noam Chomsky once said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
Step five: exterminate
The ability of ordinary people to do evil acts, is part of human nature. Prof. Philip talks about the The Stanford Prison Experiment where students played prisoner/guard. Just by assuming the roles given by them, people would fall into their places. Students given the role of guards started behaving aggressively and cruelly towards students given the role of prisoners. By giving similar guard uniforms and masks to the students dressed as guards the sense of anonymity increased — and with it their aggressiveness. When people won’t be held responsible for crimes and wrong doing they become much more likely to do them. People’s moral sense is generally not strong enough to stop them from causing harm to others.
And here’s another related interesting article. I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.
It is very worrying that many adults accept claims about negative traits of the out-group almost as readily as these children. However people probably don’t have to be “conditioned” to respond to authority. We are social creatures that inherently look for hierarchical organization in society.
Is there a point in the near future where civil uprisings will be impossible? What do you think about this?