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Understanding the Consequences of Blind Obedience to Authority: Lessons from the Stanford Prison Experiment in 21st Century Turkey

Humanity has a problem of not learning from past experiences. As a result, the repetition of mistakes becomes inevitable. Those who say, “It won’t happen to us,” also find themselves in trouble.

One of the issues that need to be learned from is the problem of being overly obedient to authority. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that some public officials do not learn from this. We can say that some of the problems in prisons are due to excessive obedience to authority. Here’s an instructive example for you:

In 1971, a study on the psychological effects of being a prisoner or a guard was conducted by a group of researchers led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. This study, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, later became the subject of films. In the 2001 film “Das Experiment,” the Stanford Prison Experiment illustrates how “the consequences of arbitrary authority, such as violence, mistreatment, rape, and even murder, arise when power is given to the wrong people.”

In the initial briefing given to the selected participants, it was stated that they were there for a “behavioral experiment” and that the conditions of life in a state prison would be realistically recreated. The only condition was that the participants had not been in prison before. After the random selection of guards and prisoners, the establishment of authority for the guards was tied to conditions such as “consuming three meals a day, conducting a 30-minute roll call every day, prisoners not leaving their designated area, prisoners only speaking when spoken to, and not touching the guards.”

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For the experimenters, simply complying with these five instructions was considered sufficient for the proper functioning of the prison system. However, when the right conditions were in place, the sixth day of the experiment revealed “what uncontrolled power would lead to and what disasters giving authority to the wrong person would cause.”

The effort to establish authority, which began with the instruction for prisoners to cross the line, turned into a series of unexpected practices, including push-ups, humiliation, insults, and later, mistreatment, torture, solitary confinement, rape, and even murder, due to the efforts of the head guard who claimed to base his worldview on religious references. On the third day of the experiment, a request for insulin from a diabetic prisoner was mocked by the guards, saying, “My grandmother had diabetes, and she would get cranky between meals.” The collective uprising of the prisoners led to the termination of the experiment. One participant died, and others were injured, some severely. When the participants were removed from the artificial prison environment and looked back at what had happened inside, most could not make sense of it, and many returned to their social lives with the idea that they were no better than monkeys from an evolutionary perspective.

In summary, what the Stanford Prison Experiment tells us is that “when the right conditions are in place… when authority is given to the wrong people… uncontrolled power leads to disaster.” It is quite interesting that in the experiment’s film, those playing the role of guards resorted to various forms of mistreatment, including violence, despite knowing that it was an experiment and the instructions were clear. The prison experiment had to be terminated on the sixth day, and one-third of those who played the role of guards were tried and punished.

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Both the real experiment and the film are meaningful in understanding “how granting authority to incompetent individuals leads to disaster in 21st century Turkey, how those who try to be overly obedient to authority harm not only individuals but also the system, and how innocent people with no connection to crime, whether distant or close, are subjected to unlawful practices in prisons.” Moreover, what happens in Turkish prisons is not limited to unlawful practices that exceed the authority of the guards. The political power makes systematic efforts to prevent the return of victims unjustly placed in prisons to their social lives, and the rehabilitation system produces more unlawfulness and crime in the hands of the wrong individuals.

The Justice System, under the pretext of political Islamic references, is trying to keep thousands of innocent people behind closed doors a bit longer, under the umbrella of “not showing respect to authority,” even for those who have been released under parole, whether they are convicted of rape, sexual abuse, drug trafficking, or murder.

We hope that prison administrations will overcome the disease of excessive obedience to authority as soon as possible, and innocent people held in prisons will not face a second punishment.

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Nurullah Albayrak is lawyer and columnist at TR724.com

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