Who defies authority: the shocking truth (Parashat Shmot 5776/2016)

If you took an introductory psychology class, you probably encountered the research of Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale.  It was one of the most famous psychology experiments of the 1960's.   (And you may have seen the recent movie about Milgram, called "The Experimenter"; here's the trailer. )

This experiment purported to be an experiment in memory, examining the effects of negative reinforcement on memory.  There would be two subjects, one of whom would be designated as the  'learner,' and the other as the 'teacher.'  The ‘learner’ would be attached to a machine that would administer electric shocks, of varying amounts of voltage, while the ‘teacher’ would be in another room, communicating with the learner through a microphone.  The ‘learner’ would then have to memorize pairs of words, and if the ‘learner’ got one wrong, the 'teacher' would press a button that would administer an electric shock.  The shocks would get progressively stronger and stronger.

Except that, as you probably know already (and certainly know if you watched the movie trailer), this experiment wasn't really about memory.  The 'learner' wasn't really a subject -- he was an actor -- and there weren't really any electric shocks.  The real question was the following:  How easy would it be to get the REAL subject, the ‘teacher,’ to administer electric shocks to a total stranger, merely because there was a Yale professor in a white lab coat who was telling him to?

Stanley Milgram came up with the idea for the experiment shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann for genocidal crimes during the Holocaust.  Milgram became interested in the question of how such an apparently normal person could become a mass murderer merely because his superiors told him to.

The results were startling.  About two-thirds of the people would keep on administering the shocks to the highest level, enough to make the learner call out in pain and then eventually become completely unresponsive and presumably unconscious or dead.  (Here is a documentary with some of the actual footage from Milgram's study. Note, though, that some have questioned Milgram's conclusions.) Such is the power of authority.  Many of us have a hesitancy to challenge orders we have been given by someone in position of authority, even when it's someone who has no real power over us.

A few years ago, this experiment was recreated by ABC News (with some minor modifications to comply with current laws about experiments with human subjects), because there had speculation that things would be different today.  The world, and the United States, have changed  a lot in the last 40 years.  Many people who hear about this experiment today respond, “Well, I would have resisted. I wouldn't have given electric shocks to a total stranger.”

And yet, the results of the recent experiment are comparable to those of the original experiment.  About 60% of the subjects are willing to administer electric shocks, up to the highest level.  

In this contemporary recreation of the experiment, who are the 40% who don't administer the shocks?  They don't necessarily fall into any particular group.  They are not, for example, more likely to be religious than the others – and they are not LESS likely to be religious than the others.  They are not more likely to be educated, or less likely to be educated.  However, there IS something special about them:  they are people who describe themselves as "non-conformist” and comfortable with speaking out, bucking trends, and defying authority.  Not surprisingly, sometimes this was a quality that got these people into some trouble – but during this experiment- this trait served to their benefit.   And we might imagine that if these same people were in another circumstance where they were asked to inflict harm on another or otherwise perpetrate an injustice, they would be the ones likely to resist and disobey.

Every year, the Torah portion of Shemot at the beginning of the book of Exodus (read this year on January 2) gives us three outstanding examples of people who would have done well in Milgram’s experiment, as they were people with a  strong enough moral compass to refuse to carry out orders that they felt were unethical.  The first two are Shifra and Puah, the midwives who are instructed by Pharaoh to slaughter all Israelite baby boys.  They refuse, and then when Pharaoh confronts them, they lie -- and in so doing, they keep the Israelites alive.  Similarly heroic is Pharaoh's daughter, who sees a baby boy in a basket in the Nile River, figures out that this must be an Israelite child, saved by his mother from the fate of death that was meted out to every Israelite baby boy, and she adopts him as her own son.  She raises him in the palace, in clear defiance of the ruling of her father, the King of Egypt.  Imagine, for example, if one of Adolf Eichmann's children had hidden Jews and saved them during the Holocaust.  That’s the depth of defiance of authority under discussion here, made all the more severe when the person is also defying a parent.

It is a beautiful confluence every year that we read about Shifra, Puah, and Pharaoh’s daughter in the mid-winter, not far from Martin Luther King Day.  These three women may be regarded as the original practitioners of civil disobedience.  These heroic, authority-challenging women in our holy Torah are an embodiment of King’s famous words:  “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”


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