The Sunset of Human Compassion

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.


  1. #1 by Steven Edward Aanes on March 19, 2010 - 8:16 am

    Dear Rabbi,
    One really sobering and frightening aspect of this disturbing revelation about human nature (nota bene: I did not call it “surprising”) is that this willingness to inflict pain if so ordered to is spread across the entire human ethno-religious spectrum.

    We would expect Nazis and communists to be the best candidates for inflictors of pain. However…

    Inject G_d into the mix and the potential for cruelty seems to have no limit. Who could refuse the ultimate authority?
    Nobody and no group is immune to becoming a candidate, at least to some degree, for manipulation for whatever vile purposes a manipulator may have as a goal.
    That is the true frightening reality.

    I once saw part of the film that documented the Milford experiment. Some of the actors pretending to be hurt were really Hollywood Oscar good.
    Some of the subjects expressed dismay at having to give them greater “shocks.”
    Yet, few refused.
    Too few.

    I remember one subject was about to walk out on the experiment in defiance of his instructor, but when threatened with receiving a bad grade, reluctantly complied with the instructor and “zapped” his sobbing, pleading “victim,” anyway.
    The sad fact is that we are programmed as social animals, to a large extent, to follow the herd, rather, the herd as directed by the pack boss.
    Did I say “herd”? I meant “wolf pack.”
    This is due to social reinforcement of a genetic legacy that once must have conferred some sort of survival advantage to a population.
    In stone age days, that is.
    And now? Well…

    “I was only following orders” works only if your pack is the one that wins. The Nazis learned that at Nuremberg, but I seriously wonder if anybody else caught on.
    Something about Rabbi’s mention of the basketball game reminded me of an incident in a show I used to watch on tv. Several of the major characters had suited up to play a game with another team. One of the more serious characters told his team captain they would “destroy” the other side.
    In countering, his leader jovially told him the point was to have a good time and kick back later with a beer and relax.
    The grumpy player responded,
    “If winning is not important, Commander….why do we keep score?”
    My elder daughter, about twelve years old at the time, was stunned and told me,
    “Daddy… that was wise.”
    Now if a child can see the obvious….

  2. #2 by torahideals on March 19, 2010 - 1:21 pm

    It is true that much anguish has been inflicted upon the world in the name of the Deity. Unfortunately, some believe this is reason to reject the whole notion of divinity and religion. The result of this, of course, is moral anarchy and far greater human suffering.

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