Today should be a day for celebration right? I did it! Well, barring falling face first into a bucket of donuts and wine with my mouth open in the next few hours, I did it. I managed a month without alcohol, gluten, grains, dairy, legumes and soy. I probably listed those in order of importance didn’t I? I was going to write about the NSV’s, the leaner, fitter me and the demons I might have conquered on the way, but that’s not how it has turned out. But I did it! So why am I not celebrating? It all feels like an anti-climax to be honest. I was expecting to be feeling great, happy and proud but instead I feel depressed, worried, sick and anxious.
I started today in the urgent care walk in centre. I have had a cough for about five weeks now, and it has ebbed and flowed in its severity, but last night while on my own, I had a few ‘attacks’ where I didn’t feel I would ever breathe again. It was so hard to suck air into my lungs that it was audible, probably about a mile away. I obviously survived and regained control of my breathing but it was horrible. So this morning, I skipped work (with the kindness, grace and care of my colleagues who covered me) and went to the urgent care centre. I waited for a bit, saw someone, waited again and saw someone else. I was diagnosed with a chest infection and given antibiotics and told to rest up, keep hydrated and take painkillers as necessary. It wasn’t the kick ass finish I wanted for today. I wanted to be seeing my students, going to the gym and ending on a high. We don’t always get what we want.
The other thing that is stopping me celebrating is the current state of the UK. I am grieving for the result of the referendum. I am heartbroken at the rise in racist attacks, bemused at the backtracking from promises to possibilities, fearful of the lack of leadership from those who ‘won’, and scared by the uncertainty. Zimbardo famously carried out what has come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. In it he randomly assigned a sample of normal, psychologically healthy young men to either the role of guard or prisoner. He put them into a mock prison, and watched the events unfold. The story goes that the guards became increasingly sadistic, the prisoners increasingly withdrawn and psychologically disturbed, until the experiment was ended eight days earlier than planned. Zimbardo argued that we learnt that the roles we give people dictate their behaviour. Much more recently this experiment was ‘repeated’ but with different parameters. This time the guards released the prisoners and they planned to live together as a commune. This result seemed much more humanity affirming. Perhaps we had, as societies might do, made progress in how we treat each other. The guards and prisoners recognised the inherent inequality in their assigned roles and decided they would not accept it.
However, it didn’t end there. Within 24 hours came uncertainty. Not all the members of the commune were doing their jobs, some of them were lounging, expecting others to work in their place, some were demanding more of members than had originally been asked. In the early hours of the morning, in response to this, some members decided to stage a coup- they would institute an authoritarian regime and police it how they saw fit. The ethics committee watching events refused to let this situation play out, fearing psychological damage to the participants. This included those who wanted the regime and those who passively supported it. What would they think about themselves when they stepped out of the experimental situation? What would others think of them? After all, this was being filmed and shown on the BBC.
I fear that the conclusions drawn from these experiments may now be tested in the real world. That we have assigned roles to the leave and the remain sides, that those who see themselves as ‘guardians’ of Great Britain feel empowered to become more sadistic as they enforce their ideals, now seemingly with a mandate from over half of those who voted. These ideals seem to embody a racist and xenophobic dehumanisation of those ‘not like us’. Just as the prisoners in Zimbardo’s experiment were purposely dehumanised and de-individuated, and the guards were given permission to enforce their order upon others, so those ‘not like us’ are experiencing a rise in abuse both general and specifically personal. It is dangerous and it is a society of fear.
I am fearful that the uncertainty that is pulsing across the UK, Europe and the world will end with people looking for authority, for a regime that offers certainty, regardless of the conditions attached to regaining certainty, as those who are supposed to lead hesitate, refuse to take action, and make contradictory and inflammatory statements. . In the real world we cannot simple halt what is happening because we do not like how our participants are behaving, or because we fear the ethical and moral consequences of that behaviour. What can we do? Look to the research into the processes of social change, minority and majority influence to convince people to behave differently? Again, there lies uncertainty.
So my personal achievement seems small, insignificant and almost worthless in the face of the enormity of what seems to be happening around me. On the other hand, tomorrow I will be able to drown my sorrows for the first time in 30 days, and blame the shitty feeling I wake up with on a hangover. Is that a silver lining?