Classical Conditioning for Peace

According to the analysis of police-murder-instigator Dave Grossman, the reason that only a minority of soldiers attempted to kill in World War II and earlier wars was a general aversion to committing murder. And the reason that the vast majority of U.S. soldiers (marines, sailors, etc.) have attempted to kill in recent decades is “classical conditioning.” A fireman rushes into a fire without thinking, if he or she has been conditioned through drill repetition to do so. Soldiers kill without thinking, if they have been trained to do so through the repetition of the realistic simulation of killing.

Of course, afterwards, you can hardly stop people from thinking about what they’ve done. The top cause of death in the U.S. military is suicide, and the top indicator of a risk of suicide is combat guilt.

I’m wondering what would happen if a government were to invest heavily in advertising and recruitment, and then pay hundreds of thousands of young people good salaries to be conditioned for peace. I strongly suspect that one thing that would not happen would be regret and guilt leading to suicide. But what would such conditioning even look like, and what side-effects might it have?

I’ve never thought of this before, primarily, I think, because I don’t want to trick anybody into being peaceful, and don’t believe it’s necessary. When I talk with people who believe that war can be justified, and who are open to talking about it, more often than not I persuade them through straightforward respectful discussion that in fact war can never be justified. If I just had 7.6 billion hours with which to spend an hour with each person, I tell myself, I could talk most of them out of belief in war, and some of them into taking action to undo governmental preparations for war.

However, I just watched a Netflix show in which an attempt is made to condition someone for peace. At least that’s one way of looking at this show. It’s called Sacrifice by Derren Brown. I’m about to spoil any surprises in it for you.

Stop reading here to avoid spoilers.

It should be noted that The Guardian, Metro, and Decider didn’t much like this show, and generally objected to the ethical decision to manipulate the man who is the subject of the show’s experiment. To believe the show’s producer, however, the man was quite pleased with having been so experimented on. In any event, one would be very hard pressed to get a corporate publication to object to the manipulation of children through video games and war movies, and to the manipulation of military recruits to kill and to believe that they are likely to survive unharmed. If manipulating someone is objectionable — and I can certainly see why it would be — should we reserve those objections for the manipulation of someone for a good cause?

In fairness, similar publications have had somewhat similar objections when Derren Brown, in another Netflix show, manipulated people into doing what they believed was committing murder. But it was individual murder, not mass murder, and not with any uniforms or bombs or national anthems or any of the accouterments that make it OK.

If you watch the preview for Sacrifice, the conclusion won’t surprise you. It’s just the in-between parts you won’t be sure about. A show that attempts to get a man to put himself between a gun and a stranger wouldn’t be aired unless, in the end, the man did it. But how is he brought to the point of doing it?

What makes the show more interesting and valuable, is that the man, Phil, is a U.S. citizen highly prejudiced against “immigrants,” and Brown intends to get Phil to take a bullet to protect a Latino immigrant from a racist white American. So, there are two things that Brown claims to do to Phil: make him brave, and make him care about people he hasn’t cared about.

The make-him-brave part is done with Phil’s consent. The manipulative part is that Brown tells Phil he’s installing a “chip” in his body that will help to make him brave, which is of course not actually true. The rest of the bravery conditioning is done with Phil’s participation. He listens to audio recordings and thinks brave thoughts. He’s conditioned to associate a certain musical jingle and hand motion with finding great courage. Ethical complaints with this seem weaker than practical ones, specifically the likelihood that it wouldn’t work on everyone.

The caring part of the conditioning is in some ways more dishonest, but also less like conditioning. (Brown calls this “empathy,” rather than caring, but it’s not clear that it relates to the strict sense of empathy, meaning experiencing the world from someone else’s point of view.) Phil is shown DNA ancestry results that find him to have ancestors in Palestine and Mexico. He’s nudged in the direction of reconsidering his prejudices. He’s not told that that’s what’s happening. He’s not agreed to it. But he’s told what are presumably accurate facts. If the DNA results were fabricated, or would have to be fabricated in the case of many other people, that presents a certain weakness. But there’s no repetitive conditioning involved here.

There is another element in the preparation to care, however. Phil and a Latino-looking man are asked to sit and stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Phil becomes emotional and asks to give the man a hug. Hardly a word is said. This is not rational persuasion. But there’s also nothing dishonest about it. I can’t imagine what harm would be done by employing this technique on a mass scale.

The most dishonest and manipulative part of the experiment is the use of numerous actors to create a staged incident in which Phil is led to make a choice to get out of a truck and stand in front of a man being threated with a gun. The world cannot hire a hundred people to manipulate every one person into acting heroically. The math doesn’t work. The paranoia of everyone afraid they were in a show would be damaging, even if it might have some positive results as well. And one heroic act isn’t enough.

But why couldn’t “empathy exercises,” DNA results, bravery practice (with or without placebos, but always respectful and consensual), be combined with rational, fact-based education about alternatives to war, nonviolent dispute resolution, the rule of law, restorative justice, anthropology, the actual history of wars and war propaganda, the environmental damage of militarism, the counterproductive results of bellicosity, and the need for courageous concerned actions to reform corrupt systems, to reverse destructive policies, and to mitigate the oncoming disaster of climate chaos?

What would be wrong with conditioning ourselves to work for peace?

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