The power to refuse our consent

Jerry Coyne’s post on Francis Collins versus Primo Levi on theodicy prompted me to read Survival in Auschwitz again. So I am. I read this passage earlier today, on p 41, in which Levi reports something another prisoner told him:

…precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – the power to refuse our consent.

A couple of days ago I read a passage in Lauren Slater’s Inside Skinner’s Box. The book is about various famous experiments in psychology, and it starts with probably the most famous of all, the Milgram experiment. Slater talks to two men who took part in the experiment in the early 60s, one who didn’t fully obey but stopped at 150 volts, and one who went all the way to the end. The latter, when he was debriefed at the end of the experiment, was horrified. “You thought you were really giving shocks, and nothing can take away from you the knowledge of how you acted. There’s no turning back.”

So Slater asks him, “I would guess you think the experiments were essentially unethical, that they caused you harm.”

No, he replies. No. “Not at all. If anything, just the opposite.”

She stares at him.

“The experiments,” he continues, “caused me to reevalute my life. They caused me to confront my own compliance and really struggle with it. I began to see closeted homosexuality, which is just another form of compliance, as a moral issue. I came out. I saw how important it was to develop a strong moral center. I felt my own moral weakness and I was appalled…I saw how pathetically vulnerable I was to authority, so I kept a strict eye on myself and learned to buck expectations.” [p 60]

Those two passages seem to me to be saying essentially the same thing, and a very important thing it is.

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