guilt, cheney and guantanamo bay

junebugkitty, one of my stumbleupon friends, had some interesting comments on the topic of guilt that we started discussing here a few days ago.

he mentioned the famous milgram experiment, where subjects in a psychological experiment were required to administer electrical shocks to their fellows when told so by an authority. over 50% followed those instructions, even when informed that the shocks could be lethal. (a re-enactment of this was staged recently, with the same results).

he then says,

this all leads to the conclusion that the world is headed by a small amount of people that are emotionally different, and don’t have that guilt factor, and aren’t ashamed of what they do, so they have the physical capabilities of committing atrocious acts to protect their image.

the nerve it takes to order people to be tortured, to know that one is responsible indirectly for the deaths of hundreds of thousands cannot be ignored by a lot of people, yet the public still votes in wars, the government keeps guantanamo going, the torturing of people ruins somebody, that’s where post traumatic stress comes in.

but why? how is humanity able to commit acts such as this? i do not understand what makes those people different from me, and it scares me to think that i would do the same as they if presented with the opportunity. not because i am evil, or different from others, but just because the military uses basic instincts to teach to kill, fight, and not to act before you think …

how do they do it? and how do they get into the positions they are in, once fighting? the urge to kill is stronger than the urge to save.

i’m definitely confused on the concept of war and the events that take place there, and what inside a person makes them act like that. do you know what it is?

i don’t know if anyone knows for sure – but let’s think about this for a moment.

nancy defines guilt as an “internal sense of culpability, being responsible for the impact my actions have if they impact others injuriously.”

others associate guilt with shame and/or regret; others yet with remorse.

in the re-enactment of the milgram experiment, those who administered the shocks showed signs that they felt the injurious impact their actions had on others. that did not prevent the majority of them from acting on it and breaking off the experiment.

similarly, shame, regret and remorse are feelings, and usually feelings that are played very close to the chest.

the question is, is guilt, in these situations, a motivator  for action? or could one break off the experiment without feeling guilty?

one scenario might be where a person says right from the beginning that they will not hurt a person at all, or that they will only go so far with hurting a person, and then follows through on it. then the conviction takes the place of the guilt (and is probably much more motivating).

more likely, however, is a situation where a person slowly starts to feel uncomfortable until guilt and/or remorse get so high that they cannot take it anymore, and then they stop.

when i was watching the re-enactment video, i was also wondering what might be happening with the subjects after the experiment. were they lying awake at night wandering, “how could i have gone so far?” thoughts of remorse and regret. the same as guilt?

what junebugkitty seems to be wondering about are people who apparently do not experience such uncomfortable tension that they break off whatever injurious activities they are engaged in.

is it because the external pressure of authority is greater than the internal pressure of guilt?

is it because they find themselves in a physical or cultural environment similar to the one in the milgram experiment, where harming another is expected and sanctioned? (i.e. they are pressured by a faceless and nameless authority)

is it because they are inured to guilt?

the latter question could lead us back to what some of the commenters on this series of guilt talked about: guilt as manipulation. if, just for the sake of argument, dick cheney was brought up in an environment where he was constantly “guilted”, he has a number of choices. for example, he could

  • be spooked by guilt wherever he goes, never taking risks, always afraid of the guilt monster.
  • become hyper responsible.
  • deal with it in therapy or other self-reflective, self-changing processes.
  • become immune to the discomfort of guilt and simply disregard it.

if we have a number of people at the helm who have chosen to disregard guilt, who command an army of people who do not have the energy/will/courage to react to guilt, then it’s easy to imagine how we can have a nation that is not 100% up in arms against what’s happening in guantanamo.

(this post was mentioned in the carnival of political punditry)

2 thoughts on “guilt, cheney and guantanamo bay

  1. wayne

    nice coincidence that you have taken on guilt at the same time that the spiritual exercises have taken me to sin. As I entered that realm of Ignatius I wondered how it would work for someone with some if limited knowledge of modern psychology. what I can say is this, I have done some dark things in my life, so maybe that puts me on the side of Cheney, something I would not want to think about, but Ignatius thinks I should. I think we are all capable of participating in a culture that has genocide, war, torture. Maybe it is having a moral code (clearly does not have to be Christian, but could be) that can help us to refrain from such. Or maybe some of us have wirings in our brain that have us more likely to participate in evil. Sadly I think we are all capable of evil and on some level we all do things daily that are on some scale evil. Joyfully, I think we all can try to resist it and act out of love for others as well as for love of ourselves. clearly I am imperfect and yet do some very cool things.

  2. isabella mori

    i totally agree with you that we are all capable of atrocities.

    i personally believe that we are made up of both “wirings in our brain” and the ability to not only have but also act according to moral codes. they’re potentialities, brought into being by all kinds of forces.

    and not only can we resist evil but we can also welcome the good!

    and yes, i KNOW you do some cool things, wayne 🙂

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