Friday, February 23, 2007

The evil within

Like many, I have been saddened and sickened to read of case after case of abuse of disabled individuals. Most recently, Kristina Chew wrote once again about the aversive "therapy" used at the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) in Massachusetts.

I linked from that site and also read what Kevin Leitch wrote on his site here.

Dr. Israel, who heads the JRC, studied at Boston's Harvard University around 1960, with B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist. His "treatments" at the JRC are loosely based on Skinner's operant conditioning theories. The list of aversives used at the JRC include such things as electric shock therapy, hitting, pinching, and withdrawal of food privileges).

I wrote recently about how eugenics has been with us since the 19th century. One would think that after WWII the world, at least all those that considered themselves "civilized" would refrain from torturing other human beings. Besides the Nazi medical experiments there were also Japanese experiments that did not receive as much press. When I was growing up I was taught that what happened in Nazi Germany was an aberration, and could never happen in the modern world.

Well, it wasn't long after WWII that a few psychologists proved that theory wrong.

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, conducted a now famous experiment in 1961 where he got ordinary people to administer electric shock "punishments" as part of an experiment on "punishment and learning" (no shocks were actually administered, but the participants did not know this). Fully 65% of the participants continued increasing the level of shock to a level they were led to believe might kill the subject, just because they were told to.

In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted another famous experiment, the Stanford University Prison Experiment, where he got ordinary college students to psychologically and physically torture and intimidate fellow students while they were in "guard" and "prisoner" roles, respectively. The experiment had to be cancelled early (after 6 days rather than lasting the planned 14 days) because the participants were increasingly spinning out of control.

Some common themes emerge when we read about these experiments. One is that the "subjects" or "inmates" are routinely depersonalized in some manner. This appears to be essential in order to make the actions acceptable. Another is that many people will just "do as they're told", even if it's something that they normally wouldn't do on their own. Still a third factor is that many people will just "go along with the group" and not rock the boat. So if everyone else is participating in torture, well, we will too.

So it's not too surprising when Amanda Baggs wrote about what she had witnessed (or had done to her) in various institutions.

Nothing that bad has happened to Buddy Boy (yet). But a year and a half ago (when he was still 5) the school he was in "helped" him when he was not compliant by building a little jail cell out of heavy wooden chairs in a separate room, placing him in the middle, and ignoring him until he would do what they wanted. We withdrew him out of that school, and upon reentering school this year he was placed in a class for emotionally disturbed kids (most of them older than him). The standard treatment at this school (which we refused in writing to let them do to him) for non-compliance was to put the kids in either a padded room or a wooden box until they "settled down".

We're out of that place, too, and thus far things have been better over the last two months. But I can easily see that many, many people are thrown into situations that are much worse than what Buddy Boy had. And that bullying, tormenting, and torture are not just accepted, but encouraged in many schools and institutions, because people are told that it will "help" the poor, non-compliant, weird individuals who are worse than animals.

Human beings are capable of unspeakable things. And each of us must remain vigilant to those acts and attitudes that allow these things to continue.

Joe is 208 :(


kristina said...

Vigilance is necessary and almost an understatement-----still have to shiver about that padded box. One has to wonder why people just don't seem able to think

Club 166 said...

It's not the lack of thinking that gets to me.

It's the lack of empathy.

Another Autism Mom said...

That JRC school is scary in every way. The problem is, parents enroll their kids there being FULLY aware of the barbaric methods they're using.

In regards to the things that can happen in regular schools... Recently in the town of Tracy, CA, this 8 year-old autistic boy was removed from his class and put by himself in a tent, where he was harrassed by other students as if he was a freak show. The mom also claimed that school personnel left him to bang his head on the wall and floor for so long he got a concussion.

Club 166 said...

It's amazing how quickly and effortlessly a person can be "depersonalized".

And once that happens, how easy it is to treat them with behavior(s) that would get you thrown in jail if you practiced them on a dog.