Social Conditioning, Obedience, and the Rwandan Genocide
1. While genocide is generally something that we conceive of as ordered and carried out primarily by state authorities with the compliance of citizens, it was shocking to learn that in the Rwandan genocide, although an extremist militia group was responsible for masterminding the genocide, many individuals at many levels from government officials to regular citizens, actively participated in the killings. It was sickening to watch how nauseatingly violent regular people could be towards other human beings, let alone former acquaintances and friends.
Given the fact that genocide continues to this day (Darfur), Burger’s research into obedience remains as relevant now as Milgram’s following the Holocaust. While Burger attempted to closely replicate Milgram’s experiment and results, I feel his greatest contribution was adapting the experiment to include a model of refusal. I expected that individuals who had this model would be more empowered to refuse an authority figure. I was surprised to read that this had little effect on whether or not people chose to continue administering shocks to learners.2. Both Hotel Rwanda and Burger’s article demonstrate that social conditioning can lead individuals to engage in behavior with which they are uncomfortable, or would be uncomfortable with in a different context. Both the movie and the article demonstrate the power of authority figures to encourage or elicit behavior that involves potentially harming others. A major difference between the movie and article is that in the article, research participants were mostly continuing the experiment due to the pressure of what they perceived to be a legitimate authority figure- that is to say, they were demonstrating obedience. In Rwanda, the Hutu extremists were not obeying direct orders from legitimate authority figures as much as they were yielding to group pressure, thus more driven by conformity, or at the very least demonstrating compliance (publicly engaging in behavior while privately disagreeing) out of fear for their own safety at the hands of the group.
3. The article helps to explain the Hutu extremists behavior in a number of ways. In the article, Burger notes that the absence of personal responsibility, or the existence of a “just taking orders” mentality, can strongly contribute to the likelihood of engaging in violent behavior. During the genocide, extremist leaders ordered members of the militias to slaughter every Tutsi man, woman, and child, and many saw themselves as just following those orders. Burger also describes the phenomenon of individuals relying on the behavior of others when in novel situations to make decisions about their own behavior. As the Interahamwe gained influence and the numbers of people who joined them swelled, other Hutus who were unsure of where they stood were increasingly influenced in their decisions by witnessing so many around them engaging in abhorrent, evil behavior that became a temporary social norm.4. One of the surest ways to prevent from engaging in evil behavior is to recognize how individuals are influenced. History illustrates the efficacy of compliance techniques commonly employed to elicit evil behavior, such as the foot in the door technique, which gains compliance through small, incremental requests. Those who participated in the Rwandan genocide likely didn’t believe they would be slaughtering their neighbors when they began listening to Interahamwe and following their orders to harass Tutsis, burn their businesses, etc. Being alert to and recognizing the early, subtle efforts to elicit compliance with violent, hateful, or divisive behavior of any sort would be critical in my effort to safeguard myself against gradually yielding to social pressure to obey or comply with evil behavior. I do not think it would be easy to interrupt the course of evil behavior based on Milgram’s findings that even with a model of refusal, participants still continued, but I do believe that if I as an individual took a stand encouraged enough others to refuse to comply, we could grow enough as a group to challenge the social norm of compliance with evil and encourage conformity with compassionate behavior instead. However, unlike in experiments, where participants faced no negative consequences for refusal, many who participate in genocide comply out of fear rather than the internalization of the authority values. This makes evil acts perpetrated by a group much more complex and difficult to stand up to as an individual.