French TV's Reality Shock

When the social psychologist Stanley Milgram died of a heart attack at 51 in 1984, his experiments two decades earlier on obedience to authority were still acclaimed -- and their ethics debated. Was his health a victim of the reaction unleashed by the inconvenient truths his studies had revealed? Fascination continues after a quarter century, most recently in France, where Milgram's work has inspired a new television documentary. As The Washington Post reports:

Eighty people who thought they were participating in the shooting of a pilot for a French reality series were willing to deliver potentially lethal electric shocks to a contestant who had incorrectly answered knowledge questions, according to the documentary, "The Game of Death," airing on French TV on Wednesday night.

Karl Marx was on to something when he wrote that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Most of Milgram's original subjects were willing to turn up the juice on their fellow citizens for the sake of scientific authority and research, whereas the French contraption was apparently intended to serve only the amusement of media spectators. And Milgram never invited a studio audience (unaware that an actor was playing the victim) to howl "Punishment!" in the spirit of the Roman Colosseum.

What would Dr. Milgram have thought? I knew him slightly and concur with Ian Parker's brilliant assessment of his work ("Obedience," Granta 71 [Autumn 2000], 99-125). He was as much a conceptual artist as an experimental scientist and sometimes felt trapped in the wrong role. Milgram once confided in a letter that he should be "shooting films under a Mediterranean sun," not acting the academic role model. I suspect he would have deplored the exploitation while being privately thrilled that his work had at last become a public spectacle. He would have reminded viewers, though, as quoted by his biographer Dr. Thomas Bass on his excellent Milgram Web site:

It may be that we are puppets -- puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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