I just finished reading The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (published 1980). This activist, revolutionary, brilliant guy embodied the heart of the 60s, and indeed embodies the heart of all activists fighting against a corrupt, messed-up system.
Abbie Hoffman was a smart kid born in 1936 to an Ashkenazi Jewish family that was assimilating into a somewhat anti-semitic America right before World War II broke out. Kicked out of high-school, he was a trouble-maker and a hustler early on. His parents managed to get him into a fancy academy to finish high school, which brought him to college at Brandeis.
There he ran into some big name teachers, like Abraham Maslow for psychology, Herbert Marcuse for political philosophy, Leonard Bernstein for music, Eleanor Roosevelt for foreign affairs. He ended up getting his masters in psychology, coming out of Berkeley right at the birth of the 60′s. He saw Castro speak. The CIA had just been born and was already pulling dirty tricks abroad. Students were demonstrating. Allen Ginsberg was composing poems right across the bay (they later would become friends).
When your life feels out of control, are you more likely to believe in a deity and its grand plan than when you feel in control of your life? A study by Aaron Kay and colleagues (2008) showed just that effect. In fact, if you prime someone to feel out of control — say, by merely asking them to recall a personal experience where they felt out of control — they tend to report a stronger belief in a controlling higher power. Also, when people feel that they lack personal control, they’re more likely to deny randomness and chance in the universe, perceiving their external reality as orderly.
Furthermore, the study showed that priming someone to feel out of control increases their support for and defense of government (especially if they perceive the government as generally benevolent). It’s as if people change their beliefs about the orderliness of the external world based on how they feel inside about their personal level of control. Kay and colleagues label this a “compensatory control mechanism” — when your perception of personal control goes down, perceptions of external control go up to compensate.
To test this general explanation, the researchers asked whether the effect would work in reverse. If you prime people to see an external source of control as chaotic or unjust, will they perceive a higher level of personal control as a result? The researchers had subjects watch a video story about an HIV patient who sought government medical assistance. Participants saw one of two versions of the video: in one version, the government was depicted as effectively helpful; in the other, it was not.
The Victims of Blowjobs
In 2007, the Georgia State Supreme Court released Genarlow Wilson from prison, after he had served 2 years of his 10 year sentence. The court concluded that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.
His crime? As a 17 year old, Wilson had accepted consensual oral sex from a 15 year old (the age of consent being 16). The irony? Having penetrative sex with the girl would have netted him a mere misdemeanor with no sex offender registration (because he was himself younger than 18 at the time). The fact that it was oral sex made it a felony with a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. (Note that until 1998, oral sex between a married couple in Goergia was punishable by up to 20 years in prison).
That silly little detail in Georgia law (that oral sex — i.e. “sodomy” — was considered a felony while vaginal penetration was consider a misdemeanor) was amended as a result of the publicity from this case. However, the lawmakers specifically chose the update not to apply retroactively, meaning that people like Wilson would not have their conviction overturned. In other words, anyone convicted under this crazy law would still remain a sex offender for life.
Back in 1961, Yale researcher Stanley Milgram performed a now-controversial experiment. He recruited people to volunteer in a psychology study supposedly about learning and memory. When they arrived, they were told the setup: a pair of participants were to play two roles, teacher and learner, while the experimenter (a stern man in a lab coat) observed. However, the trick of the experiment was that each participant was always “randomly” assigned to be the teacher, while the second alleged participant, assigned as learner, was in fact always an accomplice to the experiment.
For the experiment, the participant (as teacher) was moved to a separate room from the learner. Through an intercom, the participant was to read a list of word pairs to the learner, who then had to choose matching pairs when quizzed. After incorrect answers, the participant was to flip a switch to shock the learner — a panel at their desk had switches labeled 45 volts increasing up to 450 volts. The participant had watched the learner get strapped in to the shock equipment. The learner mentioned in passing that he had a heart condition, after which the experimenter authoritatively assured him that there was no danger (again, this was all acted out with the participant thinking the learner was just another volunteer). Back in the test room, the participant received a not-insignificant 45 volt shock to see what it felt like, and then the word-pair testing began.
The teacher read the words, and the learner appeared to be responding, and getting shocked at successively higher levels after each mistake. In fact, there were no real shocks, but a pre-recorded tape played reactions to each shock. As the shock levels went up, the learner feigned increased pain and eventually banged on the wall, complained about his heart condition, and asked to be released. If the participant continued, the learner stopped responding at all.