I'm Going to Write a Letter to...The Christians of America: Beware of the 819/416 Phenomenon!
Dear Christians of America (COA),
I'm writing today to let you know everything is going to be alright. I know that the past week has been a roller coaster ride that has taken us to the heights before the bottom drops out and we find ourselves free falling at 100 miles an hour! But let each of us encourage ourselves that the track is still beneath us and will catch us just when it seems that our hearts will lodge permanently into our throats! That said, I also want to say, the ride is not over. No one really knows how long this ride will last either. The battle is fierce and certainly promises to separate the sheep from the goats in the process. Today, I want to talk a little bit about the battle that now rages. Specifically the 819/416" Phenomenon. Let me explain.
In 1970, a psychologist by the name of Phillip Zimbardo set out to study the effects of perceived power on both the possessor of that power and the subservient to that power. Zimbardo had been influenced by the work of Stanley Milgram (see the I'm Gonna Write a Letter series on the Milgram studies posted in August of 2020) some 7-10 years earlier and sought to build on the results of those studies. In order to study perceived power, Zimbardo designed an experiment using the basement floor of the psychology department at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California to construct a simulated prison.
Before I go any further, I want to say to the COA, that I won't burden or bore you with the details of the experiment's design. If you want to know that stuff, look it up online (https://web.stanford.edu/dept/spec_coll/uarch/exhibits/Narration.pdf is a pretty good start) Also, let me say that I am well aware of the weaknesses and controversies of this experiment. I'm not really trying to do a critique of the Stanford Prison Experiment or SPE, but rather, talk to the Christians of America about what this experiment says to us about the current state of affairs in America.
With that said, let me set the stage and as briefly as possible, explain the SPE. Twenty-four college age males were recruited to participate in the experiment with 12 being designated to be guards in the prison and the other 12 assigned to be prisoners. The study was designed to last 14 days. Unfortunately, the study had to be terminated on day 6 because the environment had, according to Zimbardo himself, "created a prison where people were suffering". Generally speaking, "the guards had become sadistic and cruel while the prisoners had become withdrawn and behaving in pathological ways". Again, Zimbardo stated that the guards were delighting in what they called the "ultimate aphrodisiac of power"... there's our first indication of what is happening in the United States...there are those that have become delighted in their positions of "ultimate aphrodisiac of power". Let me add one more detail of the SPE: Zimbardo instructed the prison guards at the outset that there job was to create an environment of de-individuation. In other words, take their identities away from them! This started with inmates being assigned numbers and were never addressed by their names. Guards wore reflective sunglasses, effectively separating themselves from any communication that may come through eye contact. No name. Isolation. First, very important steps in breaking down the inmates' identity and will. Does that strike any particular familiarity? ...quarantine, no gathering together, muzzle the mouth with a mask...
Ok, so there's the boring framework. But what about the 819/416 Phenomenon? Let's jump right in. Several days into the experiment, things were starting to heat up. Prisoners had simulated and acted out a protest, including barricading themselves in a room. Guards countered with several moves to break up any solidarity among the inmates. About that time, inmate #819 breaks down. Literally. Rash all over his body, uncontrollable crying, unable to eat, even if playing the part, this wasn't exactly in the script. But something incredibly important began to happen. While Zimbardo went into a separate room to calm #819, the guards organized the remaining inmates in a chant: "819! 819!" over and over was heard. And then slanderous, denigrating insults were hurled at 819, who happened to hear this in the next room. And what was 819's response? Go ahead, COAs, take a guess. Did 819 insist on heading on to the doctor and getting out of this zoo? NO! Just the opposite. He absorbed the insults of his fellow inmates and argued to stay in the study! It wasn't the prison superintendent (Zimbardo) or even the guards...it was 819's peers that laid the heavy burden of guilt, weakness and abandonment on him that made him fold. So instead of the focus on the wretched conditions, the motivations of authority, or anything else that was going wrong with the study, 819 was demonized as the problem. Why? Because he said enough is enough, he was the bad guy!
Now what about #416? On day 5, 416 comes into the study as a replacement. He immediately recognizes the insanity and abuses of the study and forms his own little protest by refusing to eat. Maybe he thought others would join him. But he was wrong. As with #819, the inmates turned on him, missing their opportunity to unite with him and form a coalition against the conditions of their environment. Again, they began to chant his number, curse him, scream at him and let him know that they we're going to suffer because of his stupidity. And not only that, guards threw him in solitary confinement for 3 hours initially, which broke all their own rules of 1 hour max in solitary, something they had agreed upon at the beginning of the study. Now, guards were upping the antes, ignoring their own rules in order to maintain their perceived power. Again, instead of addressing the real problem, the goal became to make #416 comply...at all costs. Like #819, #416 had been demonized and the real problem swept under the rug.
I have to ask any of this registering with you? Let me now put SPE in living color. I'll tell you about a recent experience I had while shopping at Costco. I have a strong conviction about the mask and its role in the COVID pandemic. As a result, I have refused to wear the mask in most situations (I'm not stupid, if I have to see a patient in the hospital or assisted living, yes, I'm wearing a mask...even Jesus didn't throw himself off the cliff just to prove a point!). As I walked through the store, it became evident that I was the only one of several hundred people who was not wearing a mask. It was equally evident that it was not well received. Lets just say if looks could kill I wouldn't be here writing this letter! So, I get to the checkout line and the young girl begins to ring up my basket. A man comes by, gets about 6 feet past me, turns around and screams "where's your mask?!" He proceeds to yell and curse before seeking out a manager to report me. Unable to find a taker in the effort to throw me out of the store, he then makes his way back towards my checkout line and begins screaming at the young girl, "Don't take his money! You can't take his money! Don't let him buy anything!"
Ouch! I became a 819/416 Phenomenon victim! And let me tell you, it didn't feel good. I was a moment unlike I have ever had in my life. I got a small taste of what it must have been like when the crowds called for Barabbas.
So what does this all mean? What am I trying to say to you COA? The next days, maybe weeks, maybe months hold much uncertainty. Already, Christians are being demonized as the problem. Christians are the problem that people can't just kill their unborn babies without an outcry. Christians are the problem that same sex marriage is challenged. Christians are the problem that COVID is spreading so rampantly. I mean, all that singing! Spit is flying everywhere and thousands are infected...seriously! 819! 819! 416! 416!. My friends, there brews a moment of truth for the COA and that moment is now. Will we acquiesce like 819? Loose our identities? I promise you, unlike SPE, it isn't getting called off.
If Christians are to stand up and not lose their voice, unity is critical. Remember the unyielding ones of the Milgram study. They were defined by their early intervention and protest, as well as, the diversity of their protests. Christians must do the same. Do what you're called to do at this moment.
* If its sing, then sing!
* If its preach, then preach!
* If its teach, then teach!
* If its write, then write!
* If its to enter into legal litigation, then enter into legal challenge!
The only thing that works is to participate! All of us are called to intercede. Like the great English statesmen, Edmund Burke said, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing!
COA, you are the good guys! Don't do nothing!
Until I write again,
Dr. Russell Thomas, PhD
P.S. The British Broadcasting Corporation replicated their version of the SPE. One of their conclusions about the SPE...“[it is] a study of what happens when a powerful authority figure (Zimbardo) imposes tyranny.” Are there any parallels to our current America?