BLOG: A social psychological look at Turkey's controversial security bill
Turkey’s Parliament descended into chaos on Feb. 19 with lawmakers exchanging punches over a controversial bill to boost police powers against protesters.It is common knowledge that laws created under the Harm Principle are written to protect people from being harmed by others. However, their presence is the proof that when not in a frame of limits, we may, consciously or unconsciously, cause harm to those around us. While law draws the limits, the discipline of social psychology tries “to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings,” as Gordon Allport defines it (1985).
Social psychology started growing rather rapidly following World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, as researchers felt the need to study the effects of social influence, conformism and most importantly the mechanisms of authority and obedience. Each new discovery enriched the palette of law-making offering it a new perspective. Yet the disturbing nature of the results of some of these experiments might have caused some to consciously blind themselves to truths about human nature, as somehow, history seems to repeat itself…
Hence the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal where pictures showing American soldiers humiliating and torturing Iraqi soldiers were leaked. While the public was shocked by the brutality of the pictures, researchers were struck by one thing; this behavior had been studied and described by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971.
Recently, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has presented a security bill giving police forces rather more power. For example, if the bill passes, the police forces will have the power to detain people for up to 48 hours without the authorization of a prosecutor. While they were only allowed to take testimonies in the police center, with the new bill, they will have the right to take the testimonies of witnesses and victims at their homes or offices, meaning under zero surveillance.
They will also be granted the right to use firearms against those who “use or attempt to use Molotov cocktails, as well as explosives, inflammables, incendiaries, suffocating devices, or injurious or similar arms.”
In sum, they will be granted power, and lots of it. And when talking about “power,” one disturbing, yet striking research comes to mind: Milgram’s experiment.
In 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale, conducted an experiment that focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. His experiment was inspired by the reason behind the acts of genocide of those accused at the Nurnberg War-criminal trials, as their defence was pretty much always the same:
“I did what I was ordered to do.”
So Milgram selected participants for his experiment by putting ads in newspapers seeking participants to take part in a study on “learning.”
The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the “learner” and who would be the “teacher.” The draw was fixed so that the participant was always the teacher, and the learner was one of Milgram’s confederates who was pretending to be a real participant.
The learner was taken to a different room where he was seated on an electric chair where electrodes were attached to his arms (all fake, but looked quite real), while the teacher went into the next room containing an electroshock generator going from 15 volts (slight shocks) to 450 volts (deadly).
In the room with the participant was also an “experimenter” in a grey lab coat played by an actor. So after the learner was given a list of word pairs to learn, the teacher was asked to test him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its pair from the list of four possible choices. If the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock, increasing the level of shock every time the learner made a mistake.
The learner gave many wrong answers, on purpose, and for each of these mistakes, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher started refusing to administer shocks, he was asked by the experimenter in the grey coat to continue; “please continue,” “the experiment requires you to continue,” “it is absolutely essential that you continue” and “you have no other choice but to continue” were the four prods read out by the experimenter wearing the lab coat.
Finally, the shocking numbers came: 65% (two-thirds) of participants (the teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts (thus supposedly killing the learner). ALL THE PARTICIPANTS continued to 300 volts.
People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based; they are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. According to the agency theory, people will obey an authority when they believe that this authority will take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
This is supported by some aspects of Milgram’s evidence. For example, when participants were reminded that they had responsibility for their own actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. In contrast, many participants who were refusing to go on did so if the experimenter said he would take responsibility.
So, if we get back to the security bill…
Police forces are given the order to “stop and prevent attacks” - along with the freedom to use their powers - from superior authorities, being the law makers and the law itself, lifting a great part of the responsibilities that may arise from using brutal force off their shoulders, as what they have done will be recognized as “legally right.”
So if the police suspect an individual of being a public danger, they are given the right to shoot him; so they do. If the person turns out to be innocent, they will not be held responsible; they perceived it as an attempt.
And after all, they were “just following orders.”