When good people do bad things to good people

(photos at end)

It seems the only thing that is required
for us to do harm to our neighbours is the permission of authority. And the
only thing we need to do it again is silence.

The sociological evidence for this is the
famous 1974 experiment by Stanley Milgram in which subjects were told by an
authority figure to deliver shocks to an actor strapped to a chair whenever the
actor came up with the wrong answers to certain questions. The circumstances of
the situation were controlled and the shocks were faked, but the subjects
didn’t know that.

All it took was the authority telling the
subjects, in a neutral voice, to deliver the shock. Most of the subjects (both
men and women in a 2006 replication of the experiment) did as they were told
even when the actor pretended pain and begged for the punishment to cease.

However, when another “dissenting
authority” told subjects to stop shocking the actor strapped to the chair, they
stopped immediately. When the dissenting authority was not present, most people
continued shocking the actor all the way to the highest mark on the dial, 450

Of course the more Machiavellian among us
have known this recipe for millennia. First control the circumstances (usually
by scaring the pants off people). Then re-define your target group (usually by
associating them with the threat). Throw in a dash of collateral damage, stir
and, in the absence of a dissenting authority, invite good people to do bad
things to other good people.

This recipe was used effectively for years
against those troublesome protestors, the suffragettes. In 1914 a bomb exploded
in Westminster Cathedral blowing the back off the Coronation Chair. The
authorities blamed the suffragettes on no more evidence than the handbag that
held the bomb. Clearly women weren’t ready for the vote if they were going to
do that sort of thing and if it was given to them, anarchy would surely follow.

It was used by Senator Joe McCarthy to
great effect when he tried to rid America of communists in the 1950s. In Canada
it was used to deal with the general strike in Quebec in 1972. It was used in the
summer of 1995 when, as the Ipperwash Inquiry Report points out, police and
political authority fostered a climate of fear and hate which essentially gave
permission to the deadly force that killed Native demonstrator Dudley George.

It is being used by Richard Fadden the
Director of the CSIS who made a McCarthyesque “I have a list” speech to the
Royal Canadian Military Institute a few months ago. Fadden claimed that certain
municipal politicians and Provincial Cabinet Ministers (insert here: of Asian
decent) were under the influence of “foreign powers” (insert here: China). He
still hasn’t named the politicians he said were “acting against Canada’s best
interests” but the harm has already been done. He has managed to scare some Canadians
and smear a whole bunch of others without offering a shred of evidence.

Most recently this scare-smear-and-harm
strategy was deployed during the G20 weekend in Toronto. First the folks in
charge of summit security frightened everybody with a big fence, a massive
build-up of police force and tales of chaos from other summit cities. One
billion dollars was not too much to protect the world’s leaders and Canada’s
largest city from the vandals who would be coming to sack the summit.

Let’s assume that the 20,000 police and the
10,000 demonstrators on the streets of Toronto June 26 and 27 are all good
people. It’s a reasonable assumption. This is Toronto the Good after all and
they are all Canadians, and neighbours too, at least for a couple of days.

However, when it became apparent that
20,000 police troops couldn’t stop 150 anarchists, the police chiefs and some
political leaders spoke to the media. Suddenly crowds of demonstrators became
“mobs” that might (or might not) be harbouring “criminals.” And the vandals
themselves became a shadowy “criminal conspiracy.” Hmm, as I recall more
property was damaged and more police cruisers were burned in Montreal after the
last good old hockey game at the Coliseum. Hab fans or criminal conspiracy?

Whatever the truth, permission to do harm
to people was given by authority and, from that moment, riot police tactics
switched from containing crowds of people who felt they had something to say,
to attacking mobs and corralling criminals. Good people began arresting other
good people. I was there, at Queen and Spadina, on June 26 about 6:30 pm, when
the switch happened.

Spoiler alert: this next bit might upset
the “cops are tops” crowd, so if you are a member, you might want to skip this
paragraph. All of the personal injuries—the smashed hands, the broken limbs,
the concussions recorded by emergency personnel—were the direct result of
police action against citizens. All of the violations of citizens’
constitutional rights during the G20, and there were many, were perpetrated by
the police. But don’t believe me, spend half an hour with G20 You Tube videos.
Here’s a place to start: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVwXOKZh4Os&feature=related.

In spite of the evidence, Canadians seem to
be eating up the stew authorities cooked up from the recipe. In an Ipsos Reid
poll taken a couple of days after the trouble in Toronto, about 70% of us said
the police “properly balanced appropriate force and restraint.” That’s roughly
the same percentage of people in Milgram’s experiments who continued to shock
the actor, even after he pretended pain and begged for the shocks to cease.

We like to think we are good people and would
not do harm to other good people, but that’s not what Milgram, history and the
G20 weekend are telling us. Given the right circumstances all most of us need
is permission. But it is the silence of the leaders we elect to protect the
rights of our neighbours that allows harm to continue. When that happens, the
job of “dissenting authority” falls to the fourth estate, the press. And if the
press fails to speak up, the job falls to a fifth estate, and they might not be
the peaceful protestors you saw being rounded up in Toronto the Good on June 26th
and 27th.


G20 riot squad officer at King and Bay 26 June /10

G20 riot squad come to kick peaceful people off Queen St West 26 June 2010.

Heavy artillery at the G20 Detention Centre. Talk about overkill. Toronto Star photo 26June/10. http://thestar.blogs.com/photoblog/2010/06/arrests-releases-and-rain.html

Riot police disrupt a peaceful protest at the G20 Detention Centre. The girl was shot twice with rubber bullets shortly after this photo was taken. 26June/10. Toronto Star photo.

One of many unnecessary arrests at the Toronto Detention Centre. 26Jun/10 Toronto Star photo. http://thestar.blogs.com/photoblog/2010/06/arrests-releases-and-rain.html

10 July 2010
© David McLaren



David McLaren has worked for government, private industry, NGOs and First Nations. He is a writer living on the shores of Georgian Bay at Neyaashiinigmiing, but has been in Toronto for the past year.


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
This entry was posted in All Categories, News and politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s