Bhagawati reviews Michael Almereyda’s movie (based on a true story) starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder.
Triggered by the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram became interested in obedience and conformity. During the time of his professorship at Yale, USA, he created a pioneering and now famous behavioural experiment, exploring the willingness of people to inflict electric shocks onto another person as part of a test. The experiment was to find out if the actions by Nazis such as Eichmann and millions of others were done by ‘just following orders’ or if they were all actually accomplices.
The disturbing experiments Milgram devised are chilling to see and everybody watching the movie must ultimately ask themselves, “What would I have done in this situation?”
Would an average citizen be obedient and flick a button to mete out an electric shock (and hear the groan or cry of the person the pain was apparently inflicted upon) or would the person – repeatedly told to go on with the experiment – stand up and refuse to be a part of this test?
Milgram stated, “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.”
In his brilliant article ‘The Perils of Obedience’, written in 1974, Milgram said, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
This movie will leave you at the very least thoughtful and rightly so. A good moment to delve into one’s own behaviour patterns and see how we deal on a daily basis with authorities and peer pressures, asking ourselves if we are truly in charge of our lives and taking responsibility for all our actions.
Not surprisingly, Osho speaks in some detail on the experiment that Milgram created and consequently addresses obedience and disobedience and responsibility – a topic that is highly relevant now, in the present.
Related discourse excerpt by Osho
I Am Making You Responsible