Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Re-thinking Alex Haslam

Discussion makes us wiser

Thanks to the gracious response by Alex Haslam, I want to clarify a number of points.

First of all, he is eminently correct when he says in the opening line in his post that I "misconstrue the main points we are trying to pursue in this line of research." I certainly did. After reading his referenced paper, I realize my complaint is not with Alex Haslam (or Stephen Reicher) but with Radiolab and, to a lesser extent, his article in The Guardian. I based my post on those two references. I find out after reading his paper they are not very representative of his work.

I won't go into the radio program or the article further, I have a long post about that already. Both these references misrepresent his work. But it's hard to criticize Professor Haslam for wanting to get his ideas out to the public since no lay person in their right mind is going to read his Beyond the Banality of Evil: Three Dynamics of an Interactionist Social Psychology of Tyranny without a personal invitation from Alex Haslam. I urge you, however, especially if you think you understand why Eichmann or Kissinger or Catholic bishops or zealot Christians committed their atrocities to read his work.

Professor Haslam is not reinterpreting the conclusions of Milgram as much as he is expanding on them. And for the record, he is definitely not shallow—not that he needs my blessing. He has an incredible understanding of the different interpretations of Milgram's experiments, and how they have been shifted, changed, and, yes, simplified in the public's eye over time, both from other research and historical events of cruelty.

Most important he understands that "human evil is not banal in the sense of being simple." His approach is to recognize the complex dynamics involved with being drawn to authoritarian groups, being transformed by group membership, and being manipulated by group leadership. All of these things interact with each other, the individual, and with the greater society outside the group.

Even though the purpose of his research is to produce a better theory or understanding of group and individual behavior, I particularly appreciate his sensitivity that individuals are and make a difference. Every object will always fall in the same manner, …well, in a vacuum. Every person will always fall differently.* However, there are powerful forces and principles yet to be learned about how we fall, and Alex Haslam seems to be heading in the right direction to explain them.

*This is what experience and literature has lead me to believe, but, to be honest, I haven't done the proper research.

1 comment:

Big Myk said...

When a TV reporter asked Richard Feynman if he could explain in three minutes what he had won the Nobel Prize for, Feynman replied, "If I could explain it in three minutes, it really wouldn't be worth a Nobel Prize."

Perhaps the same principle applies to a 10 minute segment of Radiolab.