Oprah, abuse, stupidity, good guy/bad guy fallacies, psychology, sheep, cave men, and the Stanford Experiment
Maybe I’m just angry at the world lately, who knows, but Oprah’s boarding school scandal really annoyed me. And not for the obvious reasons. And since the whole point of this blog is for people to avoid reading the actual news, I will explain. Oprah is apparently an American TV star of some fame and wealth. She used some of her money to set up a boarding school for underprivileged girls in South Africa. All well and good so far, I wish more rich people tried to do good things with their money. Well, the scandal is that it turns out one or more staff members were abusing, sexually and otherwise, the girls at the school. This is really sad, and my heart goes out to these abused girls. Being abused in what one thought was a place of refuge and safety must be a terrible experience.
Oprah is very upset about this. And here’s where I get annoyed. Oprah said she had a real hard time getting her head around what happened. Followed up by a promise to clean house at the school, and more carefully screen potential employees. This is maddening for two reasons. The first is that it’s easy to get one’s head around. Any first year psych/sociology student or even a quick review of the literature could have told Oprah an unassailable fact: If you set up a prison environment, sooner or later some or all of the guards will abuse the prisoners unless extraordinary measures are set up to prevent it. This is human nature, no matter how carefully you screen your employees, no matter how well intentioned you are…prison environments breed this sort of problem.
This is a wonderful example of westerners belief that the world consists of good guys and bad guys, and all one has to do to solve problems is weed out the bad guys. Decades after scientists showed with the Stanford Experiment just how much of a problem this sort of institutional abuse is, after Abu Graib, after countless teenage “boot camp” deaths in the USA…people persist in believing that problems like this are caused by a few “bad apples.” No, they are caused by normal predictable human psychology, and until we recognize that and take precautions to prevent such occurrences, these events are inevitable.
The second thing that annoyed me was Oprah saying she would fix this by screening her employees better. I’m not saying of course that employees for these sorts of positions shouldn’t be screened. I’m saying that’s not enough, and it is amazing that in this day and age that people don’t know that. This is another theme I haven’t been ranting about enough. People like to believe that we live in modern times, with all our computers and jets and space probes, how can it be otherwise? Please, if you hand a cave man a cell phone..he’s still a cave man. In many ways our culture is still completely stuck in the middle ages, and refocusing our educational system to exclusively teach math and English is making this worse, not better.
Oh well, ranting aside, it’s probably not as bad as all that. The Boy Scouts for example took a sensible step that has pretty much kept abusers and such out of the Boy Scouts. They made it a rule that there always must be two adults present with the kids. This has pretty much kept paedophiles out of the Boy Scouts, since they don’t operate in pairs. Yes, the Boy Scouts isn’t a prison environment, I just mention this as an example of the type of creative thinking that can prevent situational sorts of problems. If the Catholic Church had adopted the same policy a few decades back, a lot of children would have been spared abuse.
Digressing all over the place now, the good guy/bad guy fallacy poisons much of our foreign policy and social policy. Many in the Bush administration apparently believe that the US can simply kill the bad guys and put the good guys in charge and it will fix the word’s problems. In reality Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that it’s far more complicated than that. And then look at our social policies, if locking up all the bad guys was a solution to our social problems, the USA would be a crime free paradise since we have a higher percentage of our population in jail than any other nation. Yet somehow locking all these bad guys up has still left us pretty much dead last among industrial countries when it comes to crime.
Going to a deeper level here, the point I am making is that much of human behaviour is situational. People do the things they do, good or bad, because of the situation they are in and what the people around them are doing. We all like to think of ourselves as standing above the flock, but the ugly truth is that most of us most of the time are little better than sheep when it comes to self determination. Still, the wonder and beauty of being human is that everyone one has at least the potential of being a really alert sheep some of the time.
Heck, at the very least thinking for yourself occasionally will astound your friends and confound your enemies, that has to be a good thing, nu? Have a great day everyone. Baaaa!
(The above image of Phil Hartman as an unfrozen caveman lawyer is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, it is the only available image of a cave man with a cell phone, and its use here does not in any way interfere with the copyright holder’s marketing of the image, and arguably aids their marketing efforts. Credit: NBC Universal Inc.)