Thursday, December 29, 2011

On Skillfully Speaking Truth to Power

I was driving home from the airport last Monday night and happened to catch an elder statesman of social psychology on It’s Your World. If you’ve heard it a few times, it’s easy to recognize Phil Zimbardo’s New York accent, especially as he’s offering up some of the intimate details of his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. I love listening to the inside stories, the human side of social science - all the messy details that never make it into the professional journals - the stuff that makes science an oh-so-human operation.

Dr. Z was talking about The Lucifer Effect, his latest book about “understanding how good people turn evil.” This is a fitting topic for a guy who went to James Monroe High School with Stanley Milgram, the social scientist who proved conclusively with his sixteen Obedience to Authority experiments that more of us have an Adolph Hitler living inside us than we would ever care to admit. But what was most interesting to me about Zimbardo’s talk was his account of why the Stanford Prison Experiment was called off before it had even run half the time it was supposed to. 

It turns out that at one point in the experiment, he brought in a number of outside observers to witness how a created context, together with roles assigned by an authority (him) were able to transform intelligent, decent Stanford students into abusive, demeaning nastyboys. One of the people he brought in was a woman who began crying at the sight of what she observed. She confronted Zimbardo and declared that what he was doing was ethically immoral. This strong emotional reaction and the truth of her words surprised Zimbardo to such an extent that he immediately put a stop to the experiment. Then, impressed with this woman’s ability to observe clearly and “speak truth to power,” he later proposed to and married Christina Maslach.

We need more people willing and able to speak truth to power, and to do so skillfully, with clear agendas aimed at carefully considered outcomes. And it is my contention that parents are the people who have the greatest ability to foster and nurture such people … when they’re little. In order to be able to speak truth to power, I think children need experiences of having The Big Brain Question repeatedly and unfailingly answered “Yes.” (This is what Zimbardo did big-time with Christina Maslach!). Rather than being “Shusshed” or dismissed, children need to have frequent experiences, at home and at school and in spiritual communities where they are embraced and encouraged and rewarded for telling the truth as they see it. One suggestion from Dr. Z which I love, is to have parents and teachers spend time deliberately cultivating our children’s “Heroic Imagination!”

I have occasionally stood up and spoken truth to power. Each time has been memorable, challenging and extremely painful. And each time the Big Brain Question was unfortunately answered “No.” If you’re interested, you can read the details of one such instance here: My Difficulty with Dharma Talks. In this case I used gentle inquiry (I thought) and asked the leaders of a popular spiritual teacher’s group about things I found quite disturbing about the day’s activities. But even gentle confrontation, I discovered, can unskillfully hijack a limbic system – both mine and others’. (Years later I came upon a painful account by one of the central characters in my story about later being ostracized from the community himself. When I heard my own interior voice exclaim, “Serves you right, you fascist ass!” it became clear to me that I still had some work to do to heal that experience).

I’d love to hear some of your own experiences with speaking truth to power – what motivated you to speak out and what outcomes resulted? I’d especially love to hear about accounts that worked out well. I will do my best to welcome them with open arms and tender heart.

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