Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Good People Make Dangerous Choices (Pondering Pearl and Lydia Schatz) Part II: How Dehumanization (and Declaring War Against Family Members) Causes Moral Disengagement

How do good, kind, and loving Christian parents like Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz lose perspective to such an extent that they “find themselves” capable of inflicting harm on their children? I believe that these parents did effectively “find themselves” in such a position after trusting and following the child training methods of Michael Pearl, never expecting that his techniques would ever result in harm and death. What makes a person lose so much perspective so that they are no longer able to realize that they are creating harm and injury? Are regular people at risk for falling into the same kinds of errors? Surely that cannot happen to regular people... or can it?

In a previous post, we mentioned that cultures which demand blind obedience and that operate under authoritarian styles displace critical thinking and even punish it, requiring that discernment be relinquished to a group, a system, or an authority. But this is just one piece to the puzzle – a group of conditions that create a perfect storm that dashed the Schatz Family against the rocks.

Moral disengagement creates yet another factor that causes perspective to dissolve into an alternate reality. Within complementarianism, religious leaders redefine women as creatures who are not only subordinate to men and of lesser essence than men, but they are said to be the natural and most dangerous adversary of men. Men are told that they are at war with them. In the Pearl's system of child training, parents are taught that their evil little domineering infants plot against them in a domestic war on the home front that will last for decades. The parent is taught to win at all costs, making grovelling peasants of their miserable rebel seed.
Moral disengagement ''is where all the action is,'' said Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford and an expert on the psychology of moral behavior. ''It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.''
During the '70s, Bandura wanted to continue to explore the reasons behind an individual's willingness to engage in punishment, building upon and confirming the findings of previous studies. Morality serves as a guide for behavior and governs what people find acceptable, and most moral codes prevent individuals from inflicting harm on others. Studies of punishment indicate that one of the important factors that enables harm involves the disabling of a person's guidance system, the standard that would otherwise stop them. Bandura examined the situational pressures and conditions that facilitate “moral disengagement” in otherwise common, normal, moral people.

Several college students were engaged to participate in studies testing the effects of punishment on learning, and part of Bandura's specific contribution to this area involved the effects of identification with and closeness to a person has on their willingness to punish or harm them. In order to create distance between the people to be tested through punishment and the students who would deliver the punishment, several students were recruited from another college. The students at the college conducting the experiment were told that the study was a “helpful' one, and that their efforts were meant to improve the other visiting students with their problem-solving abilities by using punishment. (The study framed the purpose in virtuous terms, stating that the endpoint served to benefit the students from the other school – an important consideration which engages an individual's willingness to comply, making the punishment seem less like a punitive measure.)

The punishment would be delivered as a series of electric shocks, and each “learner” receiving punishment would sit for several consecutive trials with the “teacher”, repeating several study exercises several times over. Over time, the “teacher” who was delivering the shocks was required to increase the number of shocks delivered as well as the voltage of the shock. What those students did not realize was that those who were delivering the voltage (which was not even delivered to the other participants) were the true subjects in the study.

Another factor unknown to the subjects was that Bandura had actually set up three groups of people to be tested and arranged to have the investigators “leak” critical personal information about the “learner”participants who were to receive the shocks to the “teachers.” For the first group, investigators mentioned prior to the study that the visiting students from the other college were “nice guys.” The second set of “learners” were not discussed at all with the “teacher” students delivering the voltage. The third set of people were said to be “animals” and “rotten” people, just before the study started. Bandura wanted to see if these personal assessments would have any kind of an effect on how the subjects chose to administer punishment, in both frequency of shocks and in the intensity of the shocks delivered.

During the first trial set for each one of the three groups (the “nice,” the “strangers,” and the “rotten animals”), there was no variation in the numbers of shocks delivered and no variation in the degree of voltage used. Nice guys, rotten animals, and those who were not spoken of were treated alike in the first round.

But the findings did not stay that way. As the subjects repeated the process, completing the battery of trials in the set, a notable pattern of behavior emerged. The nice guys received less voltage and fewer shocks. The group about whom the researchers said nothing received a level of shocks and voltage that was significantly greater than the “nice guy” group but was less than that of the “animals.” When it came to the group of people who were defined as rotten and animalistic, the true subjects of the study, the “teachers,” delivered more voltage and more shocks in their efforts to help those animals learn and to improve their rotten skills.

What can we say about these findings? It demonstrates several powerful effects that result from fallen human nature. Human beings have an intrisic sense of justice, and their preconceived ideas about people will determine how they treat those people. People who are cast in a negative light seem deserving of punishment, as though society owes them a debt to punish them. Bad people should be treated badly. However, when a person's moral compass remains intact, people will extend a general level of respect and consideration to those whom they do not know and of whom they have no opinion. For those who are idealized, people feel obligated and owe those good people good treatment and respect to an even higher degree than the general beneficence that they owe to strangers. It shows that dehumanization holds the power and the key to disrupt a person's morality and objectivity. Dehumanization causes a loss of true and reasonable perspective.

How does this apply to the Pearls in regard to child training? As previously stated, the Pearl Method redefines the traditional view that children are either innocent or are a mix of both good and evil, just like every other human being on the planet. Children are evil and are said to be the parent's evil adversary. The Pearls teach the parent that their relationship with their child is a war zone in a war that must be won at all costs, otherwise, both parent and child are deemed sinful. The war has eternal consequences for all involved, and salvation depends on following the method. (There is a promise of a good outcome, and parents are told that thinking of their children as enemies that must be subdued is something that the parent does in the best interest of the child, a show of love to them.) The child must be broken as an Amish farmer breaks the spirit and will of a horse in his stables, but breaking them becomes the parent's act of love towards them.

Jesus said to never forbid children to come to Him, and He taught that people should be treated with loving kindness. He taught that we should be well-disposed and willing to forgive others when they failed us, just as He so willingly forgave others. Those considerations were also extended to children specifically, and His attitude toward children was one of joy and tenderness. What Pearl offers to parents does not describe what Jesus taught, but rather follows the patterns that Bandura identified in college students. Pearl is teaching humanism and claims that it is God's highest and best way to raise children. It is a lie. It encourages aggression and thwarts loving kindness.

I must make a comment about the Darwinian nature of the cruel, fallen nature of the psychology that Pearl teaches as well. His model is actually evolutionary, stripping children of the goodness of the Image of God that distinguishes them from the animals. He reduces children to something less than human. This is not to say that children have no evil in them or that they are pure and innocent. The “Golden Rule” that Jesus set forth to entreat others in the way that we would like to be treated should apply to children as equally as it applies to any adult, regenerate or not. But Pearl has an expectation of perfection for children, and he essentially sets out to beat sin and error out of children through physical punishment. I would much rather be a horse in Pearl's stable than a child in his house, because though a horse is not an image-bearer like a human child is, the horse does not have a sin nature either. I think that the horse gets far more humane treatment, because there is no sin to beat out of the horse. The horse is not the adversary of his master.
And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.
Luke 6:31-38 (NKJV)

The study discussed was originally published as A. Bandura, B. Underwood, and M.E. Fromson. “Disinhibition of Aggression Through Diffusion of Responsibility and Dehumanization of Victims,” Journal of Research in Personality. 9 (1975):253-69.
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