Today I was forwarded an interesting article by Philip Zimbardo, the guy who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment and testified for the defense of one of the court martialed soldiers from Abu Ghraib.
"It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that 'little shop of horrors.'"
Don't get me wrong; what happened at Abu Ghraib still sickens me. But I hadn't thought of it from that point of view.
There is something to it. I have been on the receiving end at least twice, albeit in more innocuous settings.
The first time was in seventh grade, where we were doing a simulation of the 1894 Pullman Strike.
"In the 1880s George Pullman built the town of Pullman near Lake Calumet [by Chicago] to manufacture his famous railway sleeping cars. All buildings in the town were company owned and rented to workers, churches and stores."
To simulate this, our teacher divided the class into Workers and Bosses. I was one of the Workers, and we decided to strike. The next day, the Bosses took away our desks (since they owned the "town"). We Workers got angry. Very angry. By the end of that class period, the teacher had to end the game, as the Workers and Bosses were physically pushing each other around (not gently, either). And this was an honor's class!
The other time that comes to mind is playing The Great Dalmuti. Basically, if you are the bottom of the pecking order (also known as The Greater Peon), the rules are set up so that it is (a) very hard to escape that position and (b) you are stuck doing the menial tasks (such as collecting and shuffling the cards) for the Great Dalmuti.
Of course, I was the Greater Peon. The first few rounds were okay, but as time went on my mood started sinking, and I was getting visibly angry when ordered to shuffle. It frustrated me, as I was getting angry at my friends, and I didn't really know why. It was just a game, right?
Subsequently, whenever we played, I noticed the same reaction in whomever was stuck as the Greater Peon.
Now, this is not an excuse for the evil that happened at Abu Ghraib; it is merely an explanation (and only a partial one at that, as our leaders should never, never have let it happened). But we have no chance of stomping it out until we understand it.