Back in the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out his now infamous experiment at Yale University, in which he demonstrated the kind of submission to authority that could produce the Holocaust, or any other form of genocide. Now French national television has turned his experiment into a reality show.
In the documentary “The Game of Death,” French contestants were encouraged by an authority figure to administer lethally dangerous electric shocks to another contestant — actually an actor playing the part of a helpless victim. With every wrong answer from his fellow contestant, the punisher would raise the voltage level in order to win the game.
As the “contestant,” strapped into a booth and hooked to electrodes, appeared to writhe in pain and beg for mercy, the studio audience chanted “Punishment! Punishment!” If we have ever wondered how ordinary Germans could have tacitly endorsed the wanton cruelty of Nazi camp guards, we needn’t look much further for an answer.
A friend of mine once told me the story of how, as a yeshiva boy some decades ago, he had been watching his classmates play a game of basketball. One of his teachers, an old-world European rabbi, came along side him to watch the game. After several minutes the rabbi said, “I don’t understand. This one wants the ball. Why doesn’t the other one give it to him.”
My friend answered with teenage innocence: “Rebbe, it’s a game.”
The rabbi’s eyes widened. “A game?” he asked. “It’s a game to keep something away from someone who wants it! What kind of game is that?”
What passes for entertainment reveals much about the values of society. In a few decades we’ve gone from competition to exhibitionism to sadism. It’s too frightening to contemplate where we’ll go next.