I can't quite remember how we got onto the topic, but a friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article about Unit 731 and it once again set me to thinking about how completely fucked up we are as a species.
To very briefly summarise, Unit 731 was a secret research facility in Japan during the second world war, which specialised in chemical and biological warfare.
What set them apart from similar research facilities was that all their testing was done on living human beings. And we're not just limiting ourselves to healthy military volunteers here. In fact there weren't any healthy military volunteers. We are talking about experimentation done on living men, women children and babies against their will.
In terms of war atrocities, Unit 731 vastly outweighs anything the Nazis did (with the possible exception of Josef Mengele) in terms of individual acts of brutality.
Noted experiments included live dissections without anaesthetic, staking prisoners of war to the ground in circular patterns, then detonating bombs in the middle to find out who died the quickest, amputations (again without anaesthetic) followed by deliberately reattaching the limbs to the wrong parts of the body, tracheotomies, where the esophagus was attached directly to the intestines, full blood transfusions with horses blood, injecting horse urine directly into the kidneys, and the deliberate freezing of limbs to study untreated gangrene and necrosis and more.
There are images of some of these experiments available if you search Google images, but I seriously wouldn't do that unless you have a strong stomach and consider yourself to be quite unshockable. I'm serious. Don't say I didn't warn.
Reading about that led me onto reading about the Nanking Massacre, again during world war 2, which is yet another widely unpublicised and completely disgusting chapter in human history. And this happened not even one hundred years ago.
By this point you are probably wondering why I don't just read articles about rainbows and kittens. Well this blog, whilst masquerading under the guise of a blog about film, is more about misanthropy. And that's not just my perceived misanthropic tendencies. I like to think of this as my way of documenting the things fundamentally wrong with humans that not an awful lot of people pick up on.
The Nanking Massacre and Unit 731 are both examples of how the power of suggestion can be used to horrific effect.
The behaviour of the people involved in both cases stems from a law that was passed in Japan by Emperor Hirohito that decreed that Chinese prisoners of war were officially not human beings. In the case of Unit 731, prisoners were referred to as "Maruto" meaning logs, or wood. This was partially a joke, down to the fact that the official cover story for Unit 731 was that it was lumber mill but it also tells of the attitudes of the doctors towards the patients. These were not even human beings being tortured, but inanimate objects.
After reading about these two subjects and wondering how people could actually do these things, I ended up reading about Stanley Milgram's famous social psychology experiment and also came across an interesting phrase, "The Banality Of Evil".
What this phrase expresses is the idea that ordinary people like you and me can unwittingly become agents of a terrible evil, simply through changes in culture, language, morality etc...
The truly horrific part is that the doctors involved in Unit 731 and the soldiers involved in the Nanking Massacre can cope with what they have done, because they were programmed to believe what they were doing was OK. It doesn't take evil people to commit evil.
Unit 731 was run by Shirō Ishi, who was undoubtably what you would call evil, but is the same true of the people he was in charge of?
This is what led me on to reading about the Milgram Experiment. That link goes to the third part of his experiment which is definitely the most interesting. I strongly recommend you watch the full 15 minutes of it.
The Milgram experiment was set up in the 50's to look into the social circumstances which led to Nazi Germany. Stanley Milgram had a theory that not every single person living within Germany was "evil". It's statistically impossible. His experiment was set up to determine how far ordinary people would go when being guided by a perceived authority.
The experiment was simple: whilst posing as a scientist investigating how memory develops, two people were brought into a room to undergo the experiment. One of them was the genuine subject, the other an actor. The subject did not know the other man was an actor.
They were assigned roles "Teacher" and "Learner" by lottery, but the lottery was rigged so that the subject was always the "Teacher". The "Learner" was then strapped into a chair and hooked up to an electric shock machine, whilst the "Teacher" then read out word pairs which the other person had to remember. For each word pair he got wrong, the "Learner" would receive an electric shock. This started out mildly, but the voltage was increased with every wrong answer, until it reached 450 volts.
All the while, the actor, in another room, was playing tape recordings as the voltage went up, saying he had a heart problem and that he wanted to be let out of the chair. After a point, the tape recordings stopped altogether and no further answers were given.
Many people who took the experiment expressed concerns about the other person, but continued on with the experiment after being prompted by the scientist. Once a prewritten set of prompts had been exhausted, the test was concluded, or similarly, it was concluded once the subject had administered three 450 volt electric shocks in a row.
Bear in mind an electric shock of above roughly 130 volts on an AC current can be fatal.
Before the test, Milgram asked several psychologists to predict the outcome of the results. Many said roughly 1% of people who took the experiment would make it through to the end.
In actuality a staggering 65% of people who took the test completed. That is almost two thirds or people, and this test has been conducted again and again and the results have been almost completely unwavering.
It's worth pointing out that the results differed depending on the circumstances of the test, generally showing an increase in people who completed it as the "Learner" was further removed from the "Teacher", either by placing them further away or in an enclosed room. The result went down when the "Learner" was sat near the "Teacher" and went down further still in one instance of the test when the "Teacher" was asked to hold the "Learners" arm down onto a plate which supposedly gave them the electric shock.
In the original set of circumstances though, Milgram proved quite conclusively that people are willing to electrocute a person to death simply because they are being told to by someone they view as an authority figure.
The reason for this comes down to a few crucial factors. Because of people's ignorance about things like electricity. Most people, myself included, do not know how many volts it takes to kill a person.
But perhaps most interesting reason is that the subject holds the assumption that the scientist knows exactly what he is doing as he is the authority in the room, and so the responsibility lies with him, even though the subject is the one that physically administers the shock. The scientist tells the subject that it is fine, and he should carry on the experiment, and so he does, despite clearly having reservations.
The power authority holds over us is unbelievable. Human beings are animals in the literal sense of the word, and animals respond to hierarchies. The experiment works by forcibly placing the subject in the middle of a hierarchy.
Another interesting example of this is the Asch conformity experiments. This experiment illustrates the way human beings, when presented with an uncertainty, will look to the social behaviours of the group in order to determine their own response. In the Asch experiments, a group of people who were "in on it" were given two cards, one with a single line on it and one with three lines, one of which was the same length as the line on the other card, as well as the cards being given to a subject.
The stooges deliberately gave the same wrong answer and invariably, when asked last, the subject would give the same wrong answer. This illustrates just how easily people can abandon what they assume is correct in favour of what the majority is telling them is correct. The same principle forms the basis of George Orwell's "1984", specifically the "2+2=5" theme.
It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine the damage an authority as wide and all-encompassing as a government can do to people's assumption of right and wrong when these phenomena are scaled up. Looking at these basic functions of human behaviour, it's easy to see how a situation like the one in Nazi Germany arose when the wrong people get into power and are aware of how easily peoples morality and opinions can be altered.
The same goes for Japan. Hirohito made it official that the Chinese were not human beings, and so the Japanese soldiers that sacked Nanking were almost free of any sense of responsibility.
This is what makes me so terrified of the effects that mass media can have on people. The majority of people's opinions are formed through what they see and read on television and in newspapers. And now Rupert Murdoch is seeking to buy out all the British news outlets, it's only going to get worse.
Which brings me round to the title of this blog: The Banality Of Evil.
I'm going to lift this closing paragraph straight from Wikipedia, as I think it sums it up nicely. Read this, and then think about the implications of the sentence, from Unit 731, to Nanking, through Nazi Germany and to what it means in the world today:
"Explaining this phenomenon, Edward S. Herman has emphasized the importance of "normalizing the unthinkable." According to him, "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalisation.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.'"
It is truly terrifying what human beings are capable of, yet we describe it as being "inhuman". Strange, then, then inhumanity is an entirely human creation...
And the next time you walk down the road, remember, two thirds of the people around you would electrocute you to death if someone told them to.