Saturday, September 23, 2006

From fire alarm to fascism

A fire alarm and office evacuation at work on Friday reminded of the capacity for profound evil that lurks just below the surface in humankind. Once granted the authority bestowed by a fire warden's jacket, normally mild-mannered and obsequious people can become frightening tyrants, barking orders and becoming blind to reason or sense.

It reminded me of the Stanley Milgram experiements conducted in the early 60s. The subjects were told they were part of an experiment in learning - they were made 'teachers' and required to administer ever increasing electric shocks to 'learners', as they answered questions incorrectly. In fact, the shocks were fake, the learners were actors and the subject of the experiment was the obedience of the teachers to authority demanding that they inflict pain and potential death on others. In the variations and repetitions of the experiments, some 60-70% of subjects were prepared to administer fatal shocks to the learners - a most frightening result, and one of the most persuasive explanations for the evil-doing capacity of totalitarian regimes.

Milgram's experiments were done to test the war crimes defence "I was only obeying orders". The 'superior orders' defence remains problematic, but I think the fire-warden effect may go beyond this - in that the role seems to select those for whom authority and its potential for abuse is a thrilling, though mercifully rare, experience. These are the people to watch out for...


Anonymous said...

Clive I think you are being rather harsh on people who try to improve H&S.

In the event of a fire it is important that people do the right thing. If you don't the chances are you end up dead!

The Agency trains firewarden so they know what to do. In order to save lives the correct action must be taken quick. Most people do not do the correct thing out of instinct. I can personally remember a Director of the Agency trying to do something that would probably have resulted in not him but other staff ending up dead if the alarm had actually been a fire and I had not shouted at him. In the event workmen had hit a cable and there was not a fire, but no one knew.

Yes I am certain you find firewarden irritating but they are trying to stop you killing yourself and others - you should be grateful.

Clive Bates said...

Yes, of course... who wants to die in agony of burns, asphyxiation etc...? There is, as you say, a reputable defence for firewardens...

But perhaps there is also a deeper darker truth about the role that reveals, in some, a potent craving for the trappings of authority, joy in the frisson of emergency security state and a ferocious will to power. Against this, we must be vigilant.

For others I guess it's an altruistic, self sacrificing endeavour to keep people out of harm's way. For this, we must be grateful.