One reason I keep feeling we have an opportunity to change course right now has less to do with politics than with the convergence of science and philosophy. Human beings have always been interested in our own motives, in how our minds work. Introspection helps, but research is teaching us a good deal more about these subjects. Much of what we are learning is not pretty, but the future depends on facing it.
I’ve been writing for some time about growing proof of human susceptibility to behavior we find somehow unthinkable and the cognitive biases that keep us from accepting it. Hearing stories of torturers and exploiters, we think, “Not me: I’d never do that.” But the reality is that seeing our own moral core as incorruptible makes us even more vulnerable to situations like Abu Ghraib Prison, where a vortex of authority and custom sucks us in, normalizing sadistic behavior.
Almost all human cultures stress teaching people to be good as a way to protect against the abuse of power: clearly, moral instruction and imaginative empathy are essential ingredients of learning to be a decent person. But it is silly to think they suffice. Contrary to a great deal of experience, our default setting seems to be the expectation that people will behave as they are taught. Time and again, we are shocked at transgressions, making haste to isolate the few we identify as transgressors: just a handful of low-ranking individuals were held at all accountable for Abu Ghraib, for instance, with only one given a sentence exceeding a year and more receiving fines or discharges than prison time. The two officers cited were colonels charged with relatively minor offenses and reprimanded. Because our proclivity is to see those who held the leashes, directed the human pyramids and snapped the photos as isolated bad actors, the people at the top of the chain of command that set Abu Ghraib in motion have never been called to account.
In truth, what happened at Abu Ghraib was shaped by a distorted institutional culture and broken structures of authority more than individual wickedness. Psychological experiments like Philip Zimbardo’s and Stanley Milgram’s have shown us how easy it is to structure a situation that generates abuse by asserting authority and exploiting individuals’ conviction of their own rightness. Under such pressures, any of us might behave as badly as most of the subjects of these experiments or the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. The challenge is not so much to perfect our goodness as to control those pressures.
We need to pay attention to this as we elect a new president. George W. Bush has expanded the unitary power of the U.S. presidency almost beyond imagining, reserving to himself through the signing statements that accompany legislation the right to disregard laws and regulations, exercising war powers without declaring war, instituting wireless wiretaps and other forms of domestic spying without congressional or judicial checks and balances, and much, much more. Each arrogation of power has led to an even more smug faith in his own right to absolute authority, and thus to even greater abuses.
It is tempting to say President Bush has created an opportunity to benefit from adversity: while Bush centralized power out of a distorted idea of his own virtue and the rightness of his worldview, President Obama could use those same tools for good. But saying this would be a huge mistake, because we can no more guarantee that the ethical nature or moral center of any individual who becomes president will ultimately determine how these new powers are used than that individual soldiers’ better natures would determine what went on inside the walls of Abu Ghraib.
The consolidation of power creates its own damaging dynamics, and almost no one is good enough and strong enough to be truly immune to the temptation to abuse it.
As the horror stories pile up, it’s easy to imagine that the worst abusers have always been that way, that there is something broken in their nature. But is this true? We are learning a lot of alarming things these days about the reign of terror in Zimbabwe. Did you know that forty-odd years ago Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, was deservedly seen the world around as a hero of African liberation?
Mugabe grew up in the British colony of Rhodesia. He studied to be a teacher, eventually working at a secondary school in Ghana and returning to Rhodesia in 1960 to join the liberationist National Democratic Party. Rhodesia was ruled by Ian Smith, whose election platform was white supremacy; Smith vowed that the country’s African majority would not rule in his lifetime. In 1964, Mugabe was arrested for “subversive speech.” He served 10 years in prison, earning three advanced degrees while incarcerated, becoming increasingly bitter at each outrage he experienced (such as Smith denying him the right to attend the funeral of his own 3 year-old son).
To end a bloody war of liberation, the British held multi-party talks toward majority rule, eventually agreeing on a new constitution for the Republic of Zimbabwe. Mugabe was elected Zimbabwe’s first prime minister in 1980, ushering in land reforms and unprecedented health, education and welfare programs, making what were by all social indicators huge early gains.
Yet today Zimbabweans have the lowest life-expectancy at birth of any nation and Zimbabwe’s currency has the highest inflation rate in the world. Within a few years of attaining power, a man who had suffered greatly for his commitments to equality and freedom had used the military to crush opposition, abolish the office of prime minister and have himself created president, chancellor of the national university and pretty much everything but dogcatcher. The money that hasn’t been siphoned from investment in social well-being to finance a reign of terror was redirected to accommodate World Bank austerity requirements in the 1990s. It’s a long horrifying tale, but I’ll stop here: the most recent and repellent iterations of Mugabe’s rule you can learn in the daily news.
It is always possible to piece together an individual story that purports to explain such things: Mugabe grew so battle-hardened from the long liberation struggle and so embittered at his appalling treatment by the Smith regime that strengthening his own hand became his prime directive, regardless of the cost to others. The U.S. isn’t Zimbabwe; with stronger democratic institutions, George W. Bush’s excesses have been held in check far more than Mugabe’s, but Bush, too, has pursued the consolidation of power. Yet his personal story couldn’t be more different: a heritage of privilege and high expectation, family money cushioning him from early defeats and disappointments, an addictive personality vulnerable to influence by those who believe themselves part of an anointed elite.
But these stories don’t really explain anything. Whatever might provoke a person in authority to consolidate and abuse power, whatever explanations might be cobbled together from scraps of biography, once the project starts, it moves inexorably toward the motto of the Sun King: “L’etat c’est moi.”
How do we spot an enlightened leader? The proof of enlightenment is not confidence in one’s ability to resist evil—that’s just a delusion. The proof is in accepting that to be human is to be susceptible, in creating and supporting the structures and protections, the checks and balances, that keep us close to a moral center in the face of pressure or temptation few human beings can withstand unaided.
I was turning these thoughts in the back of my mind as I leafed through the paper this weekend, coming upon an extremely interesting story by Joe Nocera in Saturday’s New York Times: “On Day Care, Google Makes A Rare Fumble.”
Nocera describes how Google, famous for enlightened business practices including impressively generous and humane support services for employees such as healthy food, on-site laundry and high-quality daycare programs for children, has begun to practice supply-side economic policies to reduce costs, jacking the annual price of daycare to an estimated $57,000 for an employee with two kids. How Google got there is all very logical if you heed just the numbers: they instituted a blue-ribbon daycare program, lost money on it, raised the fee to cut losses and reduce the waiting list—and in the process converted what had been a symbol of caring into one of arrogant elitism. Nocera quotes Google co-founder and Russian emigre Sergey Brin’s dismissal of Google staffers’ as expressing a tiresome feeling of entitlement. Brin’s personal net worth is estimated at more than $18 billion, which evidently buys him sufficient entitlement to start seeing daycare as a business rather than a humane responsibility.
As it is with government and corporations, so it is with every human endeavor. When we start believing our own propaganda—believing in our own rightness and good instincts regardless of our acts or their impact on others—our vulnerability to expedient or exploitive behavior increases. Google’s stock has suffered setbacks lately, after what must have seemed like an eternity of rising profits. A slowing of the money supply is just the sort of circumstance a truly enlightened Sergey Brin would have prepared for, creating response and accountability structures in his organization as an antidote to the arrogance of power that can set in when what feels like one’s natural supremacy is threatened.
The more confidence we have in our own judgment and goodness—the greater our certainty in saying “If that was me, I’d never do what he did”— the less prepared we are to face situations that by their very nature pull us off course. In Washington, we need all the checks and balances provided by the Constitution plus an executive who willingly chooses transparency and explicit accountability to guard against the evasive actions in which Bush has specialized. President Obama’s first act should be to voluntarily return what George Bush has stolen from the practice of democracy. And an early act of anyone who assumes an executive role should be to empower a group of close advisors who stand to make no financial or other personal gain from that person’s decisions, “watchdogs” whose own stations in life and connections to the world don’t embody the privilege and entitlement that are the earmarks of too much unchecked power.
Being human, we just can’t count on our inner guides to keep us honest in every situation; often, the pressure or temptation is too great. Bush, Brin, Mugabe, Obama, you, me—the only difference is scale. Admit it, plan for it, monitor it, build in safeguards, and our opportunity for change will not be squandered.