Kyle’s remarks on our discussion of P. Zimbardo’s article “A Pirandellian Prison”

November 6, 2011 reading group – Phillip Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Study


Zimbardo’s famous prison study, in which a handful of college students assumed for what was planned to be two weeks the roles of prisoners and prison guards, is well-known to students of psychology and other fields.  What is remarkable about the study is the readiness with which the volunteering participants accepted their roles; after the reading of it, the group’s discussion focused primarily on the ways the Occupy movements mirror the psychology explored by Zimbardo of the powerful domineering over the powerless.


Over the course of the discussion, the experiment and its participants became metaphors for the Occupy movement.  More or less, the prison guards might be made up of the news media and institutions of physical power such as the police.  Under the employ of the 1%, who might be seen as the prison wardens (an analogy of my own making), these forces seek to control the 99%, or the prisoners, through various methods.


Around fifteen people met to discuss the text, and there was a healthy mix of old and new faces and younger and older participants.  In fact, the age split was almost even, and this became something of a factor as the discussion veered toward the use of force and its effect on radical movements of the 60s and 70s.  Kent State in particular was highlighted, with some Occupiers thinking the force on display there – the slaughter of four college students – was a spark for student activism, while a more cynical attitude maintained that, no, the use of force was the death knell for real activism in America and convinced most people that it might be better to just stay home and avoid police brutality altogether.


These displays of force are intended to fracture dissenters.  We discussed how there are “good” and “bad” prisoners just as there are “good” and “bad” occupiers, with police even telling the “good” occupiers things like, “It’s a shame there’s a handful of people ruining it for the rest of you.”  Precisely the same tactic was on display in the Zimbardo study, with all but one of the prisoners joining in a chorus to condemn the ostracized (who broke down as a result).  Optimistically, the group seemed to feel generally that the Occupy movement enjoyed a kind of solidarity that wasn’t being broken up or endangered by the tactics of our collective enemies.


Newcomer (at least to my eyes) Marcella also introduced the concept of “food independence”, stating that this was a significant factor in the success of other movements, including those that helped end apartheid in South Africa.  It encourages solidarity and with that one base need satisfied, people are freed from many potentially hazardous biological impulses, like theft.


Power’s dependence on the willingness of those it dominates to accept it is an important philosophical concept, one which I raised in the discussion and one which is not treated lightly in Zimbardo’s write-up.  The most powerful form of the concept, which might state that power only exists if its authority is granted, was met with some resistance.  And, obviously, in our situation as in the prison study, there is merit to this idea.  Occupiers, for one thing, do not have tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, clubs and batons, and other weapons designed for physical control and domination, nor do we have the legal protection and other blessings.  However, I maintain that it is important to recognize power’s dependence on what in the Declaration of Independence is termed “consent of the governed”.  If we simply ignore their authority, and ridicule it, and treat it with the contempt it deserves, we will come a long way toward extinguishing it.  There may be blood.  But as Zimbardo himself writes, “You cannot be a prisoner if no one will be your guard, and you cannot be a prison guard if no one takes you or your prison seriously.”


One thought on “Kyle’s remarks on our discussion of P. Zimbardo’s article “A Pirandellian Prison”

  1. I agree with the sentiment that the use of force on either “side” of the protest would ultimately spell destruction for the movement. I also sense that there have been currents of anticipation among some participants for a show of violence, perhaps because they feel that in some way it would validate our efforts or act as a turning point.

    It is my belief that the inadvertently beneficial, sympathetic reactionary effect of violence against protesters by the ruling authority is something that can never be artificially created, nor should any attempts be made to do so. The Kent State incident was a horrific tragedy, as all violent acts against peaceful protesters are, but it was the unfortunate climax of a peaceful movement, rather than the necessary or expected result.

    Instigation of violence by protesters is easily sniffed out and vilified, for good reason. This “perverted symbiotic relationship” where we as a society accept the use or threat of force to remedy not only other acts of violence, but all manner of dispute, is a precise example of the hierarchies we are trying to dismantle in our civil disobedience.

    The quote from the text, “you cannot be a prisoner if no one will be your guard”, speaks volumes about the actions necessary to effect change in our society. As we are all “prisoners” in a system that muffles our voices and extinguishes our influence, personal stewardship of our communities is the true road to progress. When those in power refuse to listen to our needs, we must “accept the responsibility” of social power unto ourselves, and reinvigorate this beast of democracy that so many years of apathetic oppression have chained.

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