Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Milgram Experiment, the Bystander Effect, and the Vancouver Riot

The Milgram experiments of the 60s were part of a study on human social psychology, specifically how individuals react to authority figures.  In the actual experiment, the test subject was given a button which they were told would deliver a nasty electric shock to an unseen participant (actually a voice recording).  The experimenter would ask a series of questions to the unseen participant and would direct the test subject to push the button, while increasing the voltage for each incorrect answer.

With successive shocks, the unseen participant can be heard reacting in pain, often banging against the wall and complaining of a heart condition. If at any point, the test subject raised any objections, the experimenter would prompt the test subject to continue, while assuring the test subject that he or she would not be held responsible for whatever happened.  The experiment would end if the test subject refused to continue or if the test subject delivered a fatal or incapacitating shock.

Given the morals and ethics behind such an action, researchers polled initially believed that only 1 to 3% would be willing to deliver a fatal shock to the unseen participant. The first time the experiment was conducted, 26 out of 40 test subjects were willing to deliver a fatal shock (65%). The experiment has been duplicated several times, each time indicating a surprising percentage of people who were willing to carry out these actions within the scenario, most of whom (if not all) were your average, everyday law-abiding citizen. The test subjects who delivered a supposedly fatal shock also expressed discomfort, yet proceeded anyway.

Stanley Milgram (the psychologist for whom the experiments are named) created the experiment in response to a recent trial of a Nazi war criminal. While not necessarily a defense (ie: "I was following orders"), the findings do have some very interesting (if disturbing) implications for human nature. Indeed, how does one explain why average ordinary citizens who would never steal or murder, are prone to be willing to commit these acts when thrust into specific situations?

As an ardent info-junkie, I've been regularly following the news on the Vancouver Riot ever since the first car was set on fire. As the city has been working to rebuild their now-tarnished image, the courts are trying to bring certain individuals to justice while social media is actively working to identify and shame the individuals responsible for the riot.

The initial assessment from the Vancouver mayor and the Vancouver chief of police were that the riot was the work of recognized anarchists who specifically came to the downtown area specifically intent on causing trouble, and surely enough, some of them were recognized as the same ones that came to Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics specifically to vandalize the city.  And yes, people specifically came to the downtown core with weapons, Molotov cocktails, and other tools of destruction, and would thus represent a very small segment of the people who came to watch the Canucks lose play.

What caught a few people off guard was the fact that the bulk of the people being formally charged with related crimes (assault, arson, vandalism, inciting a riot, etc.) do not fit the "typical" profile of a serial rioter. None of them have prior arrest records, and are often saying that they were "caught in the moment" (or variations to that effect).  This was one of the reasons given by one Camille Cancino, who was caught looting from a Black & Lee formal wear store in her widely-slammed apology (which she has since edited to remove any sort of justification or explanation for her actions).

I'm not quite ready to make up my mind on the public digital shaming thing yet.  In this Web 2.0 era and proliferation of cameras on cell phones, it was inevitable that anyone doing acts of destruction and violence would be caught on camera and identified, so anybody who was down there really should've known better. 

In the intervening week and a half since the city burned, I read everything I could about it, from blogs to editorials to Facebook groups. There's a wide mix of emotions, with blind rage being the most prominent.  It has certainly motivated a lot of social network mavens to identify the people who were involved in this, which has led to several of them turning themselves in, while also giving proper due to the rare heroes of downtown who were attempting to stem the damage.  At the same time, it's also brought about reactions towards some involved individuals which seem disproportionate, such as the death threats towards the family of Nathan Kotylak, prompting them to flee their home. 

A general public this angry clearly wants their pound of flesh, but to them, I propose this: You can have either satisfy your bloodlust, or the guilty parties can repay their debts to society. You cannot have both. 

The relative ease at which typically law-abiding people are capable of committing criminal acts when thrust in certain situations would suggest that this is much less of a black and white issue than the purveyors of social media justice are making it out to be. This is not to excuse any of them, as most the people left the area as soon as the game was over.  But I ask, if 65% of people are able to deliver a fatal electric shock to a complete stranger, how culpable are people in this situations, and what is an appropriate way for the judiciary system to deal with them?  In this case, maybe a philosophy degree might have more use than a law degree.

Again, this is not an excuse for these people.  This was a shameful act against the people who have worked hard to make the city the way it is, whether it be the business owners, tax payers, or the public services (ie: police, firefighters, ambulatory services), and things like this should never be allowed to occur again. However, I'm not really for living in a police state, and the years following the last hockey riot, Vancouver got dubbed as a "no fun city."

As people are trying to make sense of the whole Vancouver riot, there are lots of theories, whether it's herd instinct and the bystander effect, piss-poor parenting, our narcissistic and materialistic world view, failure to establish a sense of responsibility and morals among a frustrated youth, strong identification with our hockey team, or whatever. Or maybe there are just some people out there who want to see the world burn and know how easily the razor thin veneer of civilization can shatter.

If the same types of people came to our next big event (like the off-hand chance that the Canucks make it to the 2012 finals), it's not likely that we'll be seeing a repeat of the Vancouver Riot, given how fresh the memories are.  But if it's another 17 years until another SCF, people will definitely have forgotten and a new generation of youth will be ready to riot as soon as a car is overturned.

One way we can prevent this is if we have better education about this, to remind the people what happens when people act as passive observers, and how susceptible people are to influence.  As part of the judgments handed down towards participants in the riots, if their sentences include community service, it should be mandatory that they give talks to local high schools to tell of their experiences, especially as to how it relates to the online shaming campaigns.  An active effort to educate people about the bystander effect and actually promote the idea of standing up for what's right might help, or at least stem some of the damage caused by things like this.

But these are just ideas. Anyone know who can implement this?

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs, a post mortem

With the sheer amount of press that the Vancouver Riots of 2011 have generated, entire books could be written deconstructing the event, trying to find causes, and ways to prevent it from happening again. But as it is, all I have an opinion (about as informed as I can make it) and a blog, rather than a background in sociology, psychology, and media studies.

Having indirectly lived through the Stanley Cup Riots in 1994 (I didn’t hear about the riots until the next day), experienced the glory of Canada Olympic Hockey gold in 2010, and escaped the chaos of the Stanley Cup riots just this week (and being unable to stop watching the internet video stream for 4 hours straight as soon as I got home), I have to say that the relationship between Vancouver and hockey has been pretty bizarre. 

Even though I’m a casual fan of the Canucks (lack of cable subscription and insufficient budget to watch a game live), the Stanley Cup playoffs have been a fairly welcome distraction to my life (and an unwelcome subtraction from my wallet!) over the past two months.  I do like a good hockey game and there have been a lot of good (and not so good) examples of that over the past two months of following the Canucks.  But, it has given a lot of people something to talk about, for better or for worse.

Having been following the Canucks in 1994 during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, I remember some really exciting games and friendly rivalries between teams and fans (especially during the series vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs).  But, not being old enough to understand a lot of things about people in general, I simply took it as was and just enjoyed it, and like many was disappointed when the Canucks were unable to capture the cup back then, and was pretty flabbergasted by the rioting that followed.  Flash forward 17 years, where I have a (slightly) better understanding of things in general and we now have instant on-demand access to information, news, and social media.

Over the course of the four rounds (Chicago, Nashville, San Jose, Boston), I’ve noticed distinctly changes of the behavior among the players, fans, and the media.  Obviously, fans moods and the tone of the press will vary depending on the success of their team, although I’m just wondering if we’re actually emulating player behavior or being influenced a lot more than we realize.

The Chicago series was a particular nail biter, with the Canucks blowing a three-game lead before taking game 7. This particular series was seasoned with memories of the Canucks’ elimination by Chicago last year, punctuated with criticisms of “dirty” hits and plays from both the media and fans.

Nashville and San Jose were comparatively uneventful (outside of a flashing incident involving a particularly fetching Canucks fan and the Sharks penalty box), with Vancouver fans freely travelling back and forth between cities with no incident. At the same time, these were the more enjoyable games of the series, regardless of the outcome.

And then there was the Boston Bruins series. For whatever reasons, this was a particularly ugly series for the players, the fans, and the media. There were multiple reports of fan abuse from both sides (Lucic’s grandparents being pelted with foodstuffs at the Rogers Arena, Canucks fans being assaulted and urinated upon in the TD arena), while the game on the ice was punctuated with controversial hits and plays (Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton resulting in a suspension, Johnny Boychuck on Mason Raymond resulting in no suspension, biting incidents, etc.), all the media is fanning the flames with ugly depictions of the fans and the opposing players, while Boston fans troll the Vancouver media message boards to further fan the flames. 

Team rivalry can make for a more exciting series, especially when it is mostly in good fun, but when it becomes ugly like this, it defies explanation.  I don’t know if it’s a function of cultural differences between Vancouver and Boston (reportedly, Montreal Canadiens fans faced similar abuse from Boston fans early in the playoffs), but isn’t this going a little bit too far? Even with the mean-streets reputation of New York (pre-9/11), the 1994 Stanley Cup series weren’t nearly this heated.

And then the riots happened. 

Sure, I was disappointed when the Canucks entered the third period without a single goal, so I made a point of leaving mid-way, partly to beat the rush of the crowd, but mostly as a precautionary measure, given memories of the riot in 1994. Upon leaving the downtown area via Skytrain and waiting for the bus to take me home, I engaged in small-talk with another passenger who informed me that a car was flipped over in the downtown area. Upon arriving at home, I logged onto the internet and was glued to the screen for 4 hours as the chaos unfolded, so engrossed that I failed to realize that my friends were trapped downtown with nowhere to go (to which I submit my public apology to Kat, Barry, Nicole, Sabrina, and Crystal for not checking in on them until the next morning).

Given the complex nature of mob psychology, it’s impossible to blame any one individual or cause. Among the many cited:

  • Complacency due to the peaceful atmosphere of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010
  • Putting up large screens in the downtown area, flooding the areas past capacity
  • Police failing to act in an appropriate manner
  • Known anarchists who came with riot equipment (weapons, gas masks, etc.) specifically with the intent of inciting a riot
  • Curiosity seekers who were giving the actual rioters an audience and making it more difficult for the police to separate them
  • The narcissism of social media inspiring kids to pose on top of overturned cars and in front of burning objects, giving tacit approval to the rioting
  • The Canucks for promoting an atmosphere of violence and losing in the first place
  • Lackadaisical parenting for allowing “good kids” to get caught up in the riot
  • Our culture of stupid idiots emulating their heroes from Jersey Shore and Jackass.
Not being a firsthand witness to the destruction, my experience pales in comparison to those who were trapped in the downtown area, although I was still sickened by the destruction and the reactions from the crowd, either for participating or encouraging the destruction. My only solace was the knowledge that this entire event was being recorded by many, even by the participants themselves.

Then came the reactions.  Around the world, Vancouver was reduced to a laughing stock, losing the glory and reputation from hosting the Olympic games just one year ago. Those anticipating a weak response from the judicial system utilized the social media to help bring those responsible to justice, while the names of certain individuals are dragged through the mud. Meanwhile, the cleanup effort was being organized while the city still burned, while people continue to debate as to what caused this, and more importantly, how to stop this from happening again.

My immediate reaction was horror and embarrassment. Of all the things to riot over, this was by far the most frivolous. There was no political statement to be made, and the loss of the Canucks provided sufficient fuel for the anarchists that came specifically to stir up trouble. Video evidence shows rioters treating the wanton destruction like a party. 

Somehow, I’m reminded of Pleasure Island (or “Land of Toys”, if you follow the book), the cursed island from Pinocchio where the fun-seeking boys abandoning school work are transformed into donkeys, causing them to rampage and destroy the island attractions. I suspect the creators of MTV’s Jackass didn’t have that analogy in mind when creating the show.

Overall, I’m angered, much like the bulk of the population of Vancouver. In large numbers, people just stood by and watched, even when they were told to leave. Individual heroes attempted to guard storefronts and keep the city out of the hands of rioters and looters, with no backup, causing several of them to be severely injured.  Our culture of passive involvement and fear of being sued is one of the many contributing factors to this riot, but is one that I hope we have a better chance of fixing than the Canucks’ power play.

While I may have done the “right” thing by leaving early, making it so the police would have one less person to worry about, part of me still wishes I was standing alongside the lone heroes, or at least riling up the crowd to stand alongside them instead of just standing by and watching. Indeed, Robert MacKay, the individual guarding the Bay storefront, was viciously assaulted and beaten by about 15 different people for doing the right thing, with very little backup. If at least 20 people were backing him up, it would be an entirely different story.

In order to keep this from happening again, we will need constant reminders of this event. In the unlikely event that the Canucks make another appearance in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, I doubt that the riot will be a repeat event, given how fresh the memories will be by then.  Over the past 17 years, memories have faded and many lessons from 1994 were forgotten.

I do not want to see this again. The riot brought out the worst in all of us, ranging from the participants in the riot who got caught up in the moment to the online shaming campaign that resulted in death threats towards confessed rioters.  It also brought out the best in some of us, specifically those who came together to stop the damage and clean up.  And it also revealed a dark side of Vancouver, which is always the case when we have any sort of catastrophe. Why is it that we can’t learn unless horrible things happen?

In the hopes that we don’t see this again, here’s what I’d really like to see:
  • A public education campaign through the Vancouver Canucks to encourage fans to stay well behaved regardless of the game’s outcome.
  • Given the intentions of an organized group of thugs, the people of Vancouver must also be similarly organized. The message must get out that in the event of trouble, the people who are there to watch the game must either leave or band together to defend the city, and only stop to take photos if you are among those that have banded together to defend the city. Too few heroes emerged among the chaos and too many people were standing around and observing, continuing to fuel the chaos.
  • Those accused of rioting must be involved in any public education campaign. The faces and names of those involved have been dragged through the mud, costing them their futures, their friends, and their jobs. People need to be reminded that no matter where you are, you will be caught, and in the event that the judicial system is weak, the public will ensure that you pay for it, and either way, your life as you know it will be ruined. This will also allow for some level of redemption for those, as well as allow for the city to heal.
Much I am for the like the chances of a Canucks Stanley Cup victory, I am “forever faithful” that the city will learn from its mistakes, but only time will tell. 

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