RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Human nature, incarceration and intimidation

bioline_Chizu OmoriI recently saw “Stanford Prison Experiment,” a feature film based on an experiment conducted by Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971.

This is a famous study, one that is apparently cited in many psychology classes and I had heard of it. It was to study human behavior in a prison setting and a group of students signed on during their summer break to earn some money. They were paid $15 a day and the study was to last 15 days. With random assignments as either prisoners or guards, they were housed in an improvised prison in a Stanford building. The guards were given the duty of minding the prisoners 24/7, and the prisoners were their captives. Zimbardo and his associates monitored their activities on a closed circuit system that was upstairs from the prison.

Since Zimbardo acted as a consultant on the film, one has to assume that it closely follows what actually happened, and the acting is generally of such high quality that the story seems very real. And what happened was that the students playing guards, uniformed and wearing dark glasses, took their roles quite seriously and began to dehumanize and browbeat the prisoners. Their clothes were taken and they were garbed with a crude sack-like garment. A stocking cap was put on their heads and a chain was put on one ankle. At one point, paper bags were placed over the heads of the inmates and they were paraded around in the narrow corridor of their prison. Of course, images of the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq with those pictures of hooded prisoners, arms outstretched, flitted into my head, adding a jolt of reality to the film.

At first, the prisoners snickered and weren’t very quick to comply with the orders, but they very quickly fell in line as the guards cracked their billy clubs on tables, on walls, and orders were barked out in a loud and menacing tone. In a few hours, they were reduced to being numbers and somewhat robotic beings that had absolutely no power in their lives.

The situation became so scary that some prisoners begin to crack and show signs of disturbance. There was so much tension that Zimbardo aborted the experiment after six days for fear of doing real harm to the students. Afterward, some of the students who participated were interviewed. They were chastened by their own behavior, some saying that it frightened them to know that they could so easily assume roles of controller and the controlled. It says something about human nature, how malleable it can be given certain situations.

It was an upsetting movie and gave me much to think about. The first thing that came to mind was the parallels of army training, in which young recruits are forced to give up their identities and learn to follow orders without question. And the next thing is, of course, what we now know about the way many policemen treat black and brown suspects and how prison personnel treat jail inmates. Beyond that, it brings to mind how dictators can control large numbers of human beings. For me, North Korea is an example. I could never understand how people would submit to starvation and regimentation without revolting, but I guess if you are scared enough, you will do as you are told to do.

And I reflect on our own experience of incarceration and intimidation. It has often been remarked upon — how docile we were, lining up to get on the buses and trains which took us into our concentration camps. But people have to remember that the community leaders and men who were prominent were all picked up very soon after Pearl Harbor, about 10 percent of the population, leaving women, many of them unable to speak English, and children to fend for themselves. With bank accounts frozen, the breadwinner gone, these women had to get everything ready for the move to the camps. How on earth were they going to challenge the government? They had no choice. And once in camp, everybody was at the mercy of the government and the army that surrounded us. I am reminded of psychiatrist Frantz Fanon and his writings on oppressors and the oppressed.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif., is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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