Separating children: Our national Milgram study

Neal Turpin
Neal Turpin
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In 1961, Stanley Milgram began a series of experiments to study obedience. Nazi atrocities were still fresh on people’s minds, and he attempted to show that Americans were less inclined to mindlessly follow unjust orders than Germans. This proved not to be the case.

In these now famous experiments, subjects were placed in the role of teacher for a “study of memory.” They were ordered by a scientist in a lab coat to administer increasingly severe shocks to a person (an actor) every time they missed a question.

In the initial test, 62.5% of subjects administered shocks up to the highest level, which was assumed to be lethal. Despite what was predicted, Americans seemed willing to defer to authority, even to the point of being an executioner. With “numbing regularity,” ordinary people performed “callous and severe” actions.

Interestingly, many subjects objected verbally to the study, especially when the actor/victim began pleading for them to stop. These objections, however, did not keep them from continuing to administer shocks. The subjects knew their actions were wrong, but went through with them anyway. There was “a curious dissociation between word and action.”

Writing about his experiment in 1965, Milgram warned that “the kind of character produced in American democratic society cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.” Milgram then puts forth an important follow up question of “whether malevolent political institutions could or would arise in American society.” He couldn’t answer that question fifty years ago.

We can safely answer it now.

A lesson lost

It is with these experiments in mind that we can look at the current US policy of separating children from their parents while attempting to flee violence in their home country.

I’ve studied administrative ethics and administrative evil. I’ve read testimony from Nuremburg. I’ve written about the Stanford prison experiment. I know that ordinary people are capable of extraordinarily terrible things under direction from someone in a position of power.

And I know Americans haven’t been blameless in committing large scale atrocities. There was the genocide of Native Americans. There was slavery and, more recently, mass incarceration. There were Japanese internment camps (maybe the closest parallel to the current policy).

Yet, despite having studied these things, I hopefully believed that by now we as a society would at least be to the point where we recognized these actions as wrong.

Then I read stories about screaming children. Of “baths.” Of tent cities. Of an abandoned Walmart.

It seems those lessons from the past have been lost on those running our government. It seems they have been lost on agents at the border. And it seems, most of all, that they have been lost on the thousands of ordinary Americans it takes for these actions to happen.

As great as America could be, and as great as we think we are, we are nonetheless stealing children. We just keep administering those shocks, despite the pleas.

As great as America could be, and as great as we think we are, we are nonetheless stealing children. We just keep administering those shocks, despite the pleas. – Dr. Neal TurpinClick To Tweet

Ordinary people

As these reports have become widespread, a fresh round of outrage has emerged. But it’s sickening to realize that we are still at a point in society where we actually have to speak out against this. Stealing children and locking them in a cage is wrong. Of course it’s wrong. It couldn’t be more wrong. Surely this is obvious. But the fact is, it isn’t obvious to everyone.

What sort of monsters could create this policy? What sort of monsters could support or excuse or justify this policy? What sort of monsters could carry out this policy? They must be monsters, as no human with an ounce of a soul could rip a screaming baby from his mother’s arms.

Yet, time and time again we see that the people committing these acts aren’t monsters. They are in fact rather ordinary.

These are ordinary people who physically separate parents and children. Ordinary people who lie to parents that their children will be right back. Ordinary people who are just driving trucks.

These are ordinary people who see children being held hostage as a way to build a wall. Ordinary people who will justify things by saying the children aren’t really in cages (as if that matters).

It’s easy to point a finger at a few people who are in charge of this policy. And they should rightfully be condemned. But we must also realize that these few people would be totally impotent without thousands of ordinary people helping them accomplish these heinous acts.

Moving forward

So where do we, as a country, go from here?

Obviously, every single family should be reunited immediately. I don’t know how to make up for stealing a child, and putting parents and children alike through hell, but putting families back together is the absolute first step.

We must also learn from what’s happened. This policy is evil in the most literal way possible. It’s the kind of evil that will make Jeff Sessions’ grandchildren change their name and move because of shame. The kind of evil that will make border patrol agents get quiet when their children ask them what they used to do for a living. The kind of evil that will cause people to speak the words “Casa Padre” alongside “Manzanar.”

But simply changing the policy is not enough. If we stopped separating families tomorrow, we would still be a country full of people who were willing to do it in the first place.

But simply changing the policy is not enough. If we stopped separating families tomorrow, we would still be a country full of people who were willing to do it in the first place.Click To Tweet

We have to confront this head on. We must learn to recognize an unethical order, even if it comes from someone in power. We must move beyond our fear of people who are different than ourselves so we are less likely to be swayed by politicians who feed those fears. And we must nurture a sense of empathy in all of us so we might begin to understand the true impact of our actions on others.

I don’t know what it will take for these actions to stop. Impeachment. Unheard-of levels of protests. Shame. But whatever it takes, changing this policy will be the easy part. The harder task will be changing ourselves in such a way that nothing like this ever happens again.

I don’t know what it will take to stop the separations. But whatever it takes, changing this policy will be the easy part. The harder task will be changing ourselves in such a way that nothing like this ever happens again.Click To Tweet

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Neal Turpin

Dr. Neal Turpin is a City Planner, and also part-time faculty in U of L's Department of Political Science. He lives in Louisville with his wife and children. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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