the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.

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