The Cause of Human Cruelty, Part II: Social Control
Human Resources (see above video) is a 2010 film about government and corporate attempts at social control that seek to directly manipulate human middle class behavior. The narrator is Rebecca Lemov Professor of Associate History of Science at Harvard University. This story will use the film as a guide but will depart from the film’s course to focus more specifically on how societies can devolve into patterns of ever increasing conflict and how they can pull themselves back out of it. As we learned in part I, it is possible to develop a peaceful society, even if you’re baboons.
The film begins with a review of early 1890s corporate attempts to control employees using standardized mass production techniques and then goes on to show how this same approach was later used to control behavior in the classroom . Finally, the film moves onto government medical experiments including the 1970s MK Ultra mind control scandal.
The Mind Set of the Social Engineers
Why do corporations and government officials attempt to control what their citizens think? Scientists believe the desire to control others occurs when there are few social and legal controls on the powerful. When these circumstances are allowed to occur, the powerful frequently begin to show a callous disregard for the safety and welfare of the weak. As noted in part I, the powerful develop the mindset of Theory X where they believe that the only way to maintain control is to beat down their employees or citizens. Recent examples include not allowing Occupy Wall Street protests, Abu Ghraib (see part I), government abuses of power and the corporate abuses of power that are frequently discussed on TIR. These corporate abuses not only concern individuals’ civil rights, they also account for a lower life-expectancy in the U.S. as compared with most other developed countries. Currently, the U.S. ranks 51st in the world. The U.S. lower life-expectancy is caused by pollution, an error prone for-profit health care system, lack of health insurance, air pollution, an inadequate public health system that allows the promotion of a violent society (a topic of this film), the use of dangerous consumer products such as tobacco and guns, unsafe foods and inadequately tested consumer products.
The documentary begins by showing that many aspects of mass production weren’t done for efficiency but to increase management’s control over their employees. By breaking jobs into small tasks, management reduced the need for craftmanship which allowed management to reduce employee wages. The standardized mass production approach also created jobs that are dehumanizing, demoralizing and physically and psychologically stressful.
The film also shows how psychological research was funded by capitalists to find new ways to control their employees. One early idea that continues to be developed today is to create the impression of a caring management and to develop social functions around work that make employees feel more committed to their work. For example, transformational leadership theory is taught in most business schools. This theory argues that managers should use charismatic leaders to create devoted followers in the workplace.
However, these congenial approaches to management are misleading. Many U.S. companies have been or still are a part of an initially secret fund raising organization called ALEC. The purpose of ALEC is to get local politicians to change laws that allow companies to lower wages, reduce benefits and limit worker rights. ALEC gives campaign donations and supports politicians that promote their “model” legislation. The website ALEC exposed has forced many companies to leave the organization.
Teaching Children To Become Subservient Workers
The film argues that American schools teach obedience to authority, and competition over cooperation. In fact, research suggests that this has occurred. In addition, scientists have argued that children are also exposed to massive amounts of media violence which also plays a role in increasing violence rates. This part of the film describes how the elite nurture competitive instincts through school and work as a means to get people to work harder.
In addition, a hyper-competitive workforce makes it more difficult for the citizenry to form groups such as unions that could derail the power of corporations and the government. This weakening of society’s social bonds makes it easier for the wealthy to maintain control and to not be held accountable.
Instead of pointing fingers at systemic problems, the mainstream media diverts attention away from the true causes of violence by focusing on the evil nature of people who commit violent crimes. The mainstream media will also argue that these problems are caused by the lower class.
The combined effect of all of these forms of social control weaken society by leaving people frustrated, fatigued from overwork, scared and unhappy. The government and corporations then argue through the mainstream media that if you give them more wealth they will be able to solve the problems they created.
In the film, Dr. Gatto discusses his book Dumbing down America which explains how schools adopted the standardization techniques used by corporate America. This approach has guided our educational system toward teaching factual knowledge and developing passive learners who are taught to not question authority. Relatively meaningless institutional rewards are given such as letter grades, asocial passivity associated with staying quiet during lectures and attendance reports. Social productivity, active learning, realistic problem solving and ethical cooperation are discouraged. Despite occasional claims to the contrary, the system emphasizes professional teaching over community involvement. This system helps to reinforce that learning is trickled down from one’s superiors and reinforces notions that government institutions play a parental role in teaching.
Standardization in schools and standardized tests can be useful for doing research and cutting costs. However, Gatto notes that this approach doesn’t work for evaluating creative endeavors such as the ability to invent something such as a new mathematical proof. Therefore, the goals and supporting research that drive our educational system are directed toward passivity, obedience to authority and memorization. Students are directed away from creative realistic problem solving, learning to work with others, personal initiative and the habits of life-long learning that involve knowing how to research a problem for oneself.
Similar to mass production standardization, the standardization of schools helps train workers who are subservient to the government/corporate system. In fact, the techniques used in many schools have been explicitly identified in the psychological literature as causing people to stop questioning authority.
The alternatives which educational researchers believe work better are rarely taught to school teachers or school administrators. In contrast, modern teaching methods adopted in more successful countries give teachers less power. Instead of lecturing, modern teaching changes the teaching role into that of a small group facilitator that encourages responsibility, cooperation, library use, critical-thinking and creativity 1 2. Surprisingly, such approaches yield students whose factual knowledge is equal to the standardized approach. The only difference is that modern approaches create happier, more holistic, capable and confident human beings who can solve problems and successfully challenge authority.
As the standardized approached has continued to fail and the U.S. falls further behind other developed countries, politicians that supported the standardized approach required an excuse to continue using it. Politicians began to argue that teacher unions are to blame for not allowing administrators to fire bad teachers. However, most other developed countries that have surpassed the U.S., have teacher unions.
The Build Up of The Propaganda Machine
Although not mentioned in the film, it’s worth noting that the ability of corporate and government propaganda to overthrow leaders of foreign countries and to persuade their countrymen to hate other groups has been well documented.
The science of propaganda has become highly developed and effective. So much so that publicity stunts have become the source of iconic moments in people’s lives. A recent example was the CIA’s staging of Iraqi’s pulling down a statute of Sadam Hussein (see PsyWar documentary listed in the link above).
This iconic moment strategy has been used for almost a century. For example, the father of public relations, Edward Bernays successfully staged an event in 1929 with the help of reporters from the leading newspapers. He had been hired by Lucky Strikes to lift the taboo of women smoking cigarettes. After a women was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public, he hired flappers to simultaneously light up cigarettes in New York’s Fifth Avenue parade. He told the reporters to explain that the women were exerting their right to smoke and to refer to the cigarettes as Torches of Freedom in order to tie cigarette smoking to the womens’ rights movement. The campaign was successful. Historians found that the cigarette industry repeated the trick in the 1960’s when feminism emerged. Using the catch-phrase “You’ve come a long way baby”, tobacco companies successfully convinced many young professional women to smoke Virginia Slims.
Creating a Frustrated and Violence Society
The current system denys basic resources to the poor, misdirecting societal efforts toward fruitless or destructive endeavors including massive political propaganda and sales campaigns, and military build ups. Political propaganda increases aggression by promoting fear-mongering and scapegoating to misdirect people away from the actual problem of plutocratic control and toward other victims including minorities, LGBT, other countries and the lower classes.
Although the anthropological interpretation of mass murder in Human Resources is somewhat outdated ( it uses old footage), the film makes some good points about how the current political system can cause some people to consider violence as the only way out. This section is outdated because it fails to note that the psychology of serial killers and mass murderers is quite different. We know that many mass murders are psychotic. The effectiveness of anti-psychotics is disputed in the film when for most (but not all psychotics) the efficacy has been proven. The film covers the role of frustration-aggression within our society but doesn’t mention research on social-cognition and social learning that also play a role in increasing violence rates. The mass media puts violence on display 24/7 which creates video game addicts and teaches children that violence is a possible solution to their problems. Research has found that frustration-aggression and media displays of violence directed at youth creates more aggressive adults.
The film also briefly describes the role of the biggest killers: wars and internal purges. However, this area is a film in and of itself. TIR has made recommendations about what are the best films that describe war propaganda. This film focuses on how individual recruits are trained to become more aggressive.
Military Efforts To Control People
Human Resources ends with accounts of some of the US government’s cruelest military experiments on their citizenry including mass exposure to dangerous chemicals and biological weapons, medical experiments and mind control. In particular, the film recounts the long history of the CIA’s numerous acts of torture and murder associated with their mind control research. Similar techniques emerged in the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Additional stories about the military’s willingness to break the law and experiment on its citizens can be found on this website.
Recommendations For Activists
Person-blame approaches usually lead to incorrect solutions. Groups that spend a lot of time hating the enemy have missed the point. The point is to change social structures to create cooperation and equality. In contrast, power strives for an uncoordinated and disconnected citizenry. Approaches that show how the system can benefit the non-elite are useful for illustrating to a broader public that alternatives that benefit the middle class and poor are available. This approach has been referred to as value-pinning. You pin certain negative values on power and pin positive values on empowering alternatives. The roots of this approach have been discussed by TIR before and at times President Obama has used this approach to illustrate the moral depravity of Republican solutions that promote more exploitation. In particular, President Obama has tied the Republican party to extracting wealth from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.
Those who argue that plutocrats don’t allow others to exploit the system are overstating the case a bit. Plutocrats require a system where they profit from the work of the masses. Therefore, those who offer less exploitative alternatives are quickly dealt with. By showing that the system is changed when less exploitive alternatives are found, new followers who may have initially profited or hoped to profit from the less exploitative alternative learn their are no real opportunities for financial security.
However, such an approach must acknowledge that the creative alternatives will be quickly shut down so the movement must be sufficiently creative and flexible to move in other directions so that the pattern can be repeated.
In subsequent articles, we’ll show how financial institutions and the internet is set up to give greater power and control to the elite and how that system can be exposed and challenged. Currently the Occupy Wall Street movement and other activist groups are forming. An example that came my way as I was writing this article is the US Chamber of Democracy.
The film touches upon a Zeitgeist of our era. Despite being raw and outdated at times, the film delivers a powerful message. The discussion of behaviorism and Taylor is partially inaccurate. For example, the film identifies non-behavioral techniques as behaviorism (e.g., cognitive dissonance strategies such as frustration-aggression) and paints the first leadership theorist, Frederick Taylor, as developing ideas that dehumanized workers. Although there is truth in this, the film fails to point out many of his innovations (e.g., work breaks) helped workers. The problem was that management focused on and developed Taylor’s ideas with a view toward control. Taylor believed that negative worker relations were always caused by management’s unwillingness to allow workers to share in company profits and work with employees as a team. In the near future, we’ll review the Zeigeist films.
by Todd Miller
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