There’s a chilling moment in “Experimenter” where Peter Sarsgaard, portraying the revolutionary psychologist Stanley Milgram, speaks to the audience. He explains that there was a time when people could give a fully human response to every situation. But more often now people don’t get to see the whole situation. People carry out small narrow specialized jobs and we can’t act without some sort of direction from on high. The subject yields to authority and in so doing becomes alienated from his own actions.
Milgram called this the agentic state and it’s chilling because we know what results from this state. The beginning of the film depicted people in this state as they inflict immeasurable pain on a stranger simply because they’re told to do so.
Milgram designed this study to better understand how normal people could be a part of such horrific atrocities as gas chambers in concentration camps during the Holocaust. And his work went a long way in explaining this. People have a choice to become agentic but once you assume the role it’s almost impossible to go back and once you’re there you are more likely to do things that you would otherwise find despicable.
Unfortunately, the agentic state is more common than we would like to admit. As Milgram says through Sarsgaard, the agentic state is “Store policy”, “I’m just doing my job,” or “That’s not my job,” “I don’t make the rules,” “we don’t do that here,” ” just following orders,” or “it’s the law!” I’m reminded of a situation in which a friend was confronted by a police office who claimed that the “Rules don’t have to makes sense, that’s why they are rules.” I get a similar response every time I question a TSA agent if their blue-gloved pat-down is warranted or if the safety of Western Civilization is really dependent on confiscating my banana ketchup. Maybe the opposite is true as a famous anonymous line states, the decline of civilization will be carried out by people just doing their jobs.
And the agentic state strikes every profession, not just police officers and soldiers. It affects medical professionals, corporate employees, and academics alike—everyone who is willing to give up their right and duty to think critically for the ease or security of submission to authority.
Ayn Rand portrays the disastrous affects of this state in a scene from Atlas Shrugged in which a train operator fails to act on a concern of danger because he wasn’t given instruction from a higher authority. The result is that no one acts and disaster strikes—a disaster that could have been avoided. I imagine it was the modus operandi in the USSR, and clearly what took place in Nazi Germany.
The film is well-acted and compelling despite some odd art-school renditions of scenery. On the whole, it’s a narrative survey of Milgram’s work and to a lesser extent of his life, the crux of which is the obedience work and should be the takeaway from the film:
“the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow”
Understanding this, we can take steps to prevent the adverse effects of obedience in our own lives and in society as a whole—toward a civilization of critical thinkers as opposed to mindless followers. That alone makes the film worthwhile and a must-watch.