Advance Directives for the Mind
I've always had an affinity for nature. Not that I hug trees every week, I just prefer to understand the rules of nature because they are every bit as inviolable as physical laws.
Libertarian philosophy is, in one sense, recognition of natural laws regarding human social behavior. We recognize that the free market/private property system aligns innate behaviors in a way that brings about maximum quantities of peace, higher living standards, and the individual pursuit of happiness.
Our trust in the absence of a "plan" stems from a deep appreciation for laws that no man or men can alter. This is not faith, it is knowledge.
The near-universal misery produced by command economies and poorly-defined rights in property are just as predictable with natural laws as broken bones from falls are predictable with physical laws. The horrors of recent human history thus appear to be a series of attempts to repeal one natural law or another.
This all begins with the individual subjugating his sense of right and wrong to some mythological greater power.
The poster child for this, to me, is revealed in the psychology experiments of the late Stanley Milgram. In short, Milgram demonstrated that a majority of individuals will suppress their own natural empathy and, on the order of someone in "authority," administer electroshock torture to another unseen person until the point that the other person is silent.
I experienced a tiny slice of this while in college.
Expecting instant camaraderie, I made a collectivist blunder and pledged a social fraternity. The college I attended was about 85% "Greek" and relatively few males lived in a dorm and unaffiliated with the frat houses. Too naïve to know my own mind at 18 and one month, I joined the club (and moved in).
My experience was essentially a "Lord of the Flies" sort of adolescent stupidity until winter arrived and with it came the initiation ceremony.
The process of initiation depended upon getting the pledges (initiates) to make a programmed blunder while being individually processed through the event in front of a roomful of active (older) members. Once the "mistake" was made, the pledge was hustled to a room where a couple active members played "good cop" and "bad cop" until the pledge begged to address the entire group of active members, begging, often tearfully, to be given a second chance because the group meant so much to him.
This sounds silly; who could be dumb enough not to see through the charade?
I did see through it, but for only one reason. I recognized how the event began.
It started with at least several hours of sensory deprivation right out of a concentration camp manual. My frat "brothers" were applying a bloodless torture technique to helpless pledges.
It was winter in central Indiana. Starting about 9 PM we were stripped to our underwear with windows open, blindfolded, hands tied behind our backs, and subjected to an extremely loud replay over and over of Ravel's Bolero. This may not seem that bad, but for those who lacked the presence of mind to loosen their bonds, periodically push up the blindfold, and maintain temporal orientation by counting the number of times the song restarted (I guessed it was 15—20 minutes long), even a few hours of this treatment was very disorienting.
Such disoriented people will believe almost anything.
The pledge class was much larger than normal so while I only got about four hours some of my fellows endured this condition of sensory deprivation for over ten. Two young men were all but catatonic by the time their turn came to be "processed," and they didn't return to relatively normal behavior for another day or two.
"Lord of the Flies"? Oh yes.
A group of immature mostly 19- and 20-year-olds were screwing with the core mental wellbeing of those who volunteered to be their subordinates, tinkering with processes about which they knew absolutely nothing, for purposes that can be best described as trivial beyond measure.
Did anyone consider whether treating others this way was right or wrong?
A few did, mostly those who, by the time they reached their fourth year could no longer stomach the infantile behavior or the casual exploitation of those younger and more naïve so they moved out of the frat house and into an apartment.
Who were worst, the 22-year-olds who among students appeared to enjoy the process the most or the handful of alumni, some as old as mid-50's, who came back to the frat during initiation and exhibited a disgusting degree of "second childhood" during the proceedings?
I shudder to think that men (and a few women) largely in this age group are those who man the guard posts at Guantanamo Bay's concentration camp. I am supremely saddened to read that sensory deprivation is among the "kinder" treatments to which they subject prisoners.
Are their commanders (all the way up to our wonderful POTUS) like the adults who, in a fit of vicarious sadism, returned to the frat and egged on the child-men who were in charge?
What of Milgram's subjects who refused orders to shock "test subjects" all the way to a potentially killing voltage? None of them suggested the "experiment" be stopped. Not one threatened to take action against the program.
These events reveal something important about the inviolable laws governing human nature, laws we either embrace and accommodate or suffer the consequences.
It takes tremendous mental preparation in order for a human being to avoid the overwhelming urge to rationalize evil acts that appear in one's immediate self-interest.
Today we're treated to residents of NW Illinois discussing the "economic benefits" of the state selling the largely empty $120 million prison in Thomson to the Obama Administration so Guantanamo concentration camp inmates can be moved there. Did the neighbors of Dachau or Treblinka debate the merits of locating a German government facility nearby?
Only those who in advance were prepared to decide the right and wrong of such proposals were in a position to immediately reject any internal desire to "do the math." No proposed or real economic benefit could trump the wrongness of extending a fig leaf disguise of the vicious policy of imprisonment without a fair and public trial, a policy nurtured by the sociopaths who rule us.
Those who debate the "merits" of these issues have clearly outsourced the determination of right and wrong to others, just as Milgram's subjects relied on obedience to authority to trump their humanity.
This is human nature folks. If we don't want to be guided by our worst impulses, we have to get ahead of them (and help our children do so early).
We do this by thinking hard about what is right and wrong, drawing clear lines in our minds (and teaching our kids) about what we absolutely will not do to another human being no matter the cost and be prepared to live by those decisions.
Only by such simple, black-and-white advance (mental) directives can any of us avoid joining in the cloud of gray, banal evil that surrounds us.
February 4, 2010
Copyright © 2010 by David C. Calderwood