Let Us Celebrate Our Heroes

Let us celebrate our heroes, and empathize with the vast majority of our social groups (including, even, religious leaders) who have no realistic chance when pitted against their social forces. These thoughts were stimulated by my reading of a recent article posted at http://www.edge.org. I have mentioned, perhaps too many times, that this is one of my favorite places for intellectual stimulation.

The article (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/zimba…) is an interview with the famous Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His “prison experiment” was one of the first to expose the power of social context to shape individual behaviour. Within days, well-adjusted students who were randomly selected to be guards became abusive, and similar students who were randomly selected to become prisoners began to display classic prisoner type behavior. The behavior was so extreme that it had to be terminated after six days, instead of running for the two weeks for which it had been planned.

In this interview, Zimbardo describes the experiment in the context of other studies he has undertaken with regard to heroism, and notes the unusual character of the few individuals who tend to swim against social currents. These he calls “heroes”. To use his words,

“In her analysis, [Hanna] Ardent was saying that from everything we knew about his history, Eichmann [a German leader at Auschwitz] was essentially a normal person before he went into Auschwitz. And when he came out of Auschwitz he was again assessed as a normal person. So the interesting question is, what was the process of transformation from before to after his being embedded in that situation. As a social psychologist, I bring forth the power of situations to transform good people into evil, which is what I’ve been studying since my Stanford prison study way back in 1971. I argue that there are some features of special situations that can corrupt the best and brightest. Normal people, even good people. Not all, but most. And the ones who resist, the ones who somehow have the street-smarts – the situational sophistication – to resist are the exceptions. In fact, I’m going to call them heroes.

Arendt’s analysis is really a forerunner of the situational analysis, although she doesn’t express it as such. There is no question that what Eichmann did was evil, but there’s also no question that when he was outside that situation, he was normal. The issue then is, what is it about the particulars of that situation that was able to transform this person.”

Zimbardo has spent a lifetime probing this question: Why do a few resist social forces while most can be persuaded to engage in even “obviously” immoral acts once certain kinds of social dynamics push in that direction?

However, before we brand all who resist Mormonism’s influence heroes (and start to celebrate our own heroism) we should recall that many who swim against social currents are misguided, disillusioned, nut cases, etc. The difference between a hero and a nut job is often largely a matter of perspective. However, with the benefit of significant historical perspective, it is possible to identify special individuals.

For example, Zimbardo’s studies on heroism involved interviewing people of many cultures who assisted Jews to avoid extermination during the Holocaust. And, his studies with regard to the powerful effects of social context have helped us to understand how many of the Auschwitz guards were normal, upstanding citizens, good parents, charitable individuals, both before Auschwitz, and after Auschwitz. There was something about being in the environment created around Auschwitz that radically changed their character, and enabled them to participate in some of the most atrocious acts that have ever been chronicled. His prison experiment elegantly disclosed how easy it is for powerful circumstances of this sort to be created, and how rapidly they take effect. For more of the same sort of thing, see Stanley Milgram’s famous “shock” experiments related to the power of authority (or perceived authority) to shape behavior.

We should also remember that our heroes for the most part do not feel that they “chose” their course of action. They simply acted out of the role genetics and circumstances have molded them to play as the agents of change at the fringe of society. Many people who read and post here are heroes in small ways, and some in very large ways.

Among the many bits of useful advice Zimbardo (and other social psychologists) have for us in light of their research findings is contained in the following paragraph:

“My research really says several things. One, that we have to recognize that some situations, some social settings, some behavioral contexts, have an unrecognized power to transform the human character of most of us. Two, that the way to resist – the way to prevent a descent into Hell, if you will – is precisely by understanding what it is about those situations that gives them transformative power. It is by this understanding that you can change those situations, avoid those situations, challenge those situations. And it’s only by willfully ignoring them, by assuming individual nobility, individual rationality, or individual morality that we become most vulnerable to their insidious power to make good people do bad things. Those who sustain an illusion of invulnerability are the easiest touch for the con man, the cult recruiter, or the social psychologist ready to demonstrate who easy it is to twist such arrogance into submission.”

Therein lies much of my rationale for taking radical, decisive action to remove my children from Mormonism’s influence. And, for those who would change the Mormon community, this points the way forward. That is, just as context shapes individual human behavior, the context within which social organisms like Mormonism is set will shape their behavior. Accordingly, the big issues with regard to Mormonism are things like how information flows between the Mormon community and the rest of the world. Imagine, for example, the effect of high school educational requirements with respect to the sociology of religion and how religion works across a broad range of societies.

Similarly, think about the possibility of rules that would restrict the representations religious groups can make with regard to their history and other issues that are within the grasp of history and science. Or, what about rules that might affect the way in which religious organizations and other charities can use donations made for religious purposes to run huge businesses.

In any event, reading Zimbardo’s interview made me think about a number of things. First of all, I thought of the recent article on Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2165033/entry…) containing excerpts from the recent book “God is Not Great”. The slate piece provided a thumbnail sketch of Mormon history. While it was accurate for the most part (and I don’t have time to set out the quibbles here), it irritatingly cheeky and deeply misleading because of its failure to place Mormonism within its social-psychological context. I have the same criticism for Richard Bushman’s recent “Rough Stone Rolling”. It is unreasonable to attempt to describe the history of Mormonism and understand the behavior of those within it, now or at any other time, unless the relevant social-psychological forces are sketched as background. I will further suggest that it is irresponsible to even undertake the description without that background context. I am critical of Hithchens in this regard, as I am of Bushman. The behavioral patterns of both the religious leaders and followers in contexts similar to that of Mormonism in all its stages have been studied extensively by social scientists. Failure to even mention this context indicates ignorance, at best. I did not watch the recent PBS series, but so far have seen nothing to indicate that it use social psychology as a lens the understand the Mormon experience. Perhaps someone who saw it could chime in on that point.

More importantly, Zimbardo reminded me of the massive debt I owe to a number of heroes within Mormon culture. These include people like William Law, who stood up to Joseph Smith. People like Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks, who swam against powerful tides when they publish their groundbreaking books with regard to Mormon history. My favorite hero — and ironically still at least in some ways a faithful Mormon — is Michael Quinn. His books were tipping points for me and members of my family. A single appendix (I can’t remember which one — it summarizes Mormon history in point form) to his “The Mormon Hierarchy — Origins of Power” drove a spike through the heart of the ignorance that I used to call my Mormon testimony. Mike Quinn has laid more on the altar of faith as he has followed his convictions than anyone else I personally know.

I also pay tribute to Steve Benson. The first time I read one of his essays (it was called “Letting Go of God”, I think), it chilled me to the bone. I was not ready for that kind of thick, rich, caustic soup. And, in that essay Steve displayed the acerbic wit that makes him the world class political cartoonist he is. Again, I was not ready for that when it came to beliefs I had not yet rooted out of my head. I know other members of Steve’s family, and thought that while I might be on my way out of Mormonism (and I was just starting the journey at that point) and so resembled Steve in some ways, that I would never come to see the world the way he did. Several months later, after my journey was well underway, I ran across the interviews with Dallin Oaks (one of my former heroes), and Neil Maxwell that Steve and Maryanne transcribed. This abrupt pulling back of the Wizard’s curtain confirmed for me in modern terms what Quinn had so beautifully established in historical terms — that is, the Emperor had not onlybeen naked in the beginning, but had not found any clothes in the meantime. Naked, naked, naked. And so Steven and Maryanne became my heroes. I honor both of them for what they did.

The list is long, and I arbitrarily stop here.

So, thanks to Phillip Zimbardo, today I feel deeply grateful for my heroes. We each have our heroes.

And at the same time, I feel a deep empathy for the large percentage of the Mormon mass that cannot be realistically expected to change or even to see the possibility of change. Zimbardo and other social psychologists have nailed this down tight. We might wish that our loved ones will change and some of us might even still pray for it, but it is not going to happen except in a few cases, and if we wish to live our lives in peace, we must find ways to accommodate ourselves to this reality and not allow ourselves to be consumed by feelings of loss, anger and sadness in that regard.

Why was I one of the few to find new eyes? I have no idea. And so I simply try to accept this, and that most will not be like me. Maybe, in the end, I just a nutjob (and I know many people who bow their heads and say “yes” on that one.)

Both ends of the emotional spectrum are always with us. Joy and pain; exhilaration and despair; light and dark; ying and yang. However, the early stages of this journey for me were characterized by breathless peaks of joy, wonder and exhilaration, followed by equally radical moments of terror and despair – kind of like the ocean during a storm. As time passed, both the mountains and valleys began to level out, and as I have found new and more healthy places to invest my energy. A stable foundation to life, independant of man’s authority, that I do not recall ever experiencing has made its presence felt. I believe this has to do with a simple acceptance of reality as I now perceive it, including our inability to know many things respecting it. This means accepting the pain, suffering and other unpleasantries that are part of life, as well as consciously putting myself in places where I expect to experience off, wonder and joy.

So, the new vines that I feel growing up around my soul are increasingly dominated by emotions such as acceptance, gratitude and a deep satisfaction that encompasses, and is more than, joy.

Life is good.

Leave a Reply