Posts Tagged 'Humanity'

God – the greatest PR man of them all

It seems that anybody’s image can be made over for some people, so long as they claim to have God on their side. According to this article in the New York Times, the Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz is being held up as an exemplar of redemption by Christians in the US.

Berkowitz terrorised New York for over a year from 1976 to 1977, killing 6 people. He claimed variously that he had been commanded to do so by a demon that had possessed his neighbour’s dog and that he was a member of a Satanic cult that had carried out some of the killings. You might argue that the belief in demons and his subsequent belief in God are connected and that the people lauding his redemption should be wary.

But, as is the modern way, a church is hosting a blog for him to pontificate on everything from homosexuality to his fellow inmates’ hip-hop. So, you might also argue that he lost the right to pontificate in public about other people’s taste in music and partners at the time he was busy murdering innocent people. But then sometimes it seems all is allowable if you claim you have God on your side.

A glimpse behind the curtain

Now, of course, we are supposed to feel as if we are somehow set apart from our fellow Man. That is a given in most Barnum statements. What other people get up to and how they think is a mystery. Now and then though you get a glimpse behind the curtain.

I had one yesterday in Waterstone’s. There were two sections that took up a hefty chunk of the store’s shelf space, one labelled Dark Fantasy the other Dark Romance. Vampires of course. But not creepy Count Orlock vampires. Modern, sexy, gothic, misunderstood succubi and incubi; all brooding looks, fangs, cleavage and six packs. Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer vampires.

It all means something of course. Blood, death, sex, eternal life, outsiderdom, and whatever. And it’s interesting that it is primarily aimed at young women (although watching the news the other day, I was surprised to see so many older women lined up outside the premiere of the new Twilight film moaning that Robert Pattinson hadn’t turned up. Some of them were of an age that makes you wonder if they might need to have a bit of a rethink.)    

Somebody in Waterstones is clearly a bit fed up about it all. There is a table in front of the Dark displays with a pile of books under a sign proclaiming ‘There’s More to Books than Vampires.’

The joy of iPods

Is of course that they force you to organise your music now and then and dig out old favourites. Like The Blue Nile.

Don’t just stand there

A little over a year ago, I published the below blog entry. It came to mind again given the news that a French television station had reproduced a version of the Milgram experiment as some sort of commentary on reality TV. This is how the BBC reported it. There may be some point to be made about why 81 per cent of people were prepared to electrocute a stranger to death when urged to do so by a presenter and a TV audience compared to a mere 65 per cent when told they had no alternative by a bloke in a white coat, but then again maybe not.




You’re probably aware of the experiment performed by Stanley Milgram in which volunteers were asked by men in white coats to administer what they believed were electric shocks to another person. Around two-thirds of the volunteers agreed to deliver what they knew to be potentially fatal shocks to the subject, who they could hear screaming and begging for them to stop. What they didn’t know was the person they were agreeing to inflict this on was in fact an actor. And nobody knows what the results might have been if they’d known the actor was Whoopi Goldberg.

Milgram’s experiment stands as the most famous example of a series of studies that have attempted to highlight the willingness of humans to bow to authority figures and comply with group norms irrespective of what their own morals might tell them. One of the most telling of these was carried out by two American researchers called John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968.

The two men’s work was partly inspired by a notorious 1964 American murder in which a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer. The murder took place over a period of around half an hour, during which dozens of witnesses who watched the crime from their windows failed to help the victim.

What Darley and Latane found was that while solitary individuals will typically intervene if another person is in need of help, that tendency diminishes proportionately with the number of people who are present. In some situations, a large group of bystanders may fail to help a person who obviously needs help.

Darley and Latane first demonstrated this so-called ‘bystander effect’ in the laboratory. One of the studies they used was to place a subject alone in a room who is then told he can communicate with other subjects through an intercom. In reality, he is just listening to an audio recording and is told his microphone will be off until it is his turn to speak. During the recording, one subject suddenly pretends he is having a heart attack or seizure. The study found that how long the subject waits before alerting the experimenter varies inversely with the number of other subjects. In some cases, the subject never told the experimenter at all.

This type of behaviour and the contrast between the behaviour of people as individuals and the same people’s behaviour in groups has an ongoing fascination for social scientists. In organisations this is often defined as groupthink, based in something called the Abilene paradox, a famous thought experiment which demonstrates how individuals will go along with an idea that they think is wrong or which they don’t want to do for some other reason.

This is far more than a thought experiment of course. The thinking is most evidently and often cited in reference to the Nazis, most notoriously in the case of Adolf Eichman for whom the phrase the ‘banality of evil was coined.

The Bay of Pigs invasion is classically cited as an example of groupthink. You could also claim that the Iraq war is the result of groupthink. In the business world, groups of people have gone along with appalling behaviour. So apparent is this that Joel Bakan produced a book and film a couple of years ago based on the central thesis that organisations are inherently psychotic in that they are designed to pursue narrow goals in a way that allows them to ignore what appears to be basic morality. 

More sober commentators have pointed to this as evidence that companies are behaving in a morally neutral way and that modish efforts to pursue goals of corporate social responsibility are not really what companies should be about. But increasingly they are. And although in some respects this is rightly criticised as greenwashing as a marketing tool, many companies and individuals behave in a commendably altruistic manner. Most eye-catching in this respect have been Warren Buffett who is reported to have given away over $37 billion of shares to various charitable foundations and Bill Gates who it is reported has donated around $29 billion.

Of course few of us can afford to match this. But we can break ourselves out of groupthink, the bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance. Darley and Latane, the two men responsible for proving the existence of this sort of behaviour also proved how we can escape it. There are five steps.

1. Notice something is happening

2. Interpret this as something where help is needed

3. Assume personal responsibility

4. Decide what action to take

5. Take action.



The ends and the means

When I was young, I used the library in Newcastle under Lyme to educate me in ways that school didn’t or couldn’t. I was after the sort of vicarious ‘interlectewalism’ you can only get by carting around Orwell, Dostoevsky and Kafka and which is only impressive in your own delusions. A lot of it inevitably either went over my head or was beyond my maturity and none of it helped make me more attractive to women, which is what I was also preoccupied by at the age of 17.

While large chunks of what I read passed me by, bits of it stuck. I recall reading the essays on war and humankind by Aldous Huxley in a collection called Ends and Means. His core argument in one essay was that the ends can never justify the means because the means determine the ends. It’s an idea that I still use to filter the thoughts of other people and it came to mind when thinking about the latest justifications of Tony Blair, that supposedly committed Christian, forthe Iraq war. 

What Blair has said about his commitment to the war, which he now admits was going ahead regardless of whatever justifications were needed for it, is fundamentally wicked. Huxley the humanist was way better and way ahead of him. In 1937 he wrote: ‘no government has the right gratuitously to involve its subjects in war. War is so radically wrong that any international agreement which provides for the extension of hostilities from a limited area to the whole world is manifestly based on unsound principles. Modern war destroys with the maximum of efficiency and the maximum of indiscrimination, and therefore entails the commission of injustices far more numerous and far worse than any it is intended to redress.’

‘Those who prepare for war, in due course get the war they prepare for.’

At last

It’s better when someone says it for you, Marcus Brigstocke’s rant about religion

A cheap laugh at this thicko’s expense

And a lazy post from me while I try to get back in the habit of blogging.

Fallen leaves

The Jewish memorials and museums in Berlin provide an effective antidote to the circus that Auschwitz has become. My friend Mick who had visited Auschwitz first, was particularly moved by Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum which uses architecture to disorientate people and several voids to remind them of the enormity of the crime. The displays are largely about people, intimate, focussing on the tragedy of individual lives rather than the horror.  

But there are moments of horror too, such as experiencing the Fallen Leaves installation by Menashe Kadishman.



Birkenau is a slightly different proposition to Auschwitz. It still has the coach parties and picture takers and school trips, but its size at least disperses all of that and also conveys at least one aspect of the Nazi genocide – its scale. The size and layout of the site give it the feel of a memorial in its own right as do the rows of brick chimneys, exposed by the decay of the wooden huts that once covered them.


Arbeit macht frei

I visited Krakow last week with some friends. Before we went there was some debate about whether we should visit Auschwitz or not. I was broadly against it, because I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it. But in the end I went with the consensus and because I thought I could at least explore how I felt about the place.

It was upsetting but not for the reasons I thought. It is now very much a tourist attraction, coach trips and postcards. I could accept this at some level if the people who visited it all reacted to it for what it is. But they don’t. We saw many people snapping smiling pictures of each other in front of the buildings. Most shameful was a guy of about 50 holding on to a barbed wire fence, pretending to be electrocuted and screaming at the top of his lungs to the ‘amusement’ of his friends. It is clearly time the whole place was closed to the public.

July 2020

Desk Jockey