Does a sense of power and impunity generate a negative influence on people’s behavior, making them harsh and rude towards fellow members of the society?
The other day, a friend of mine spoke to me about her domestic help.The man helps in cooking and general upkeep. With few years of service behind him, he continued to be sincere and enthusiastic in his work. For some time, he was very popular with those temporary workers who came over to do outside jobs like tending to the garden, cleaning the external area etc.
While at lunch with them he would not only share food with them generously, often taking smaller portions for himself, but ensure that they ate well and were happy to share the table with them. Strangely, over a period of time, as he settled down, a visible change came over his behavior. He would ignore and stay away from visiting workers. To my friend’s questions, “did you give them some tea”, he would evasively respond with something like “I was busy, Madam” or “they did not ask for any, Madam”. Eventually, his compassion was replaced by greed and lack of interest in the well being of anybody, other than his own.
Did this apparent hostility develop as he felt more and more secure and comfortable in his position, or, did it always lurk in him somewhere deep down, only to surface once the circumstances were appropriate?
We may desire that this was just a rare situation where we are forced to question “human compassion”. Perhaps so, but it is certainly one that provokes us to think and analyse especially when we observe more horrifying examples of covert and overt human cruelty in history.
The experiment on human behaviour carried out by Marina Abramovic, a Performance Artist is one such example. Held in an art gallery in her native country Serbia in 1974, Marina’s experiment proved to be a horrifying depiction of possible human barbarity in a world where none was questionable to authority. The “performance” was also a harsh pointer to human behavior in a context of power, freedom and impunity.
“Performance Art” is a form of art that is literally performed before an audience and this one was no exception.
This “performance” was an unscheduled, random one with those who happened to be at the scene as the audience. Before the experiment, Marina explained what the act was all about. She would stand motionless there right in the middle of the audience for six hours. Nearby was a table on which a variety of articles were laid out. There were harmless articles like a rose, a feather.There were also a loaded gun, a razor blade, a knife and other potentially dangerous objects.
Any member of the audience could use any of the articles on the table as she/he wished. The performer would accept full responsibility for whatever happened there for the six hours.
Initially members of the audience looked at her with curiosity, walked around her and stared into her expressionless eyes which were focused far away. As the clock ticked away seconds into minutes and minutes into hours, curiosity gave way to boldness. more boldness and mischief.
At the end of six hours, she was alive but her cheeks were wet with tears, her body with her own blood. Looking at the brighter side, it was fortunate that no one in the audience tried to see if the gun would really discharge a bullet. As “the show” was over, people walked away as casually as they would at the end of a movie.
What was truly shocking was that not one person stopped to say a kind word or offer to help her either during or after her ordeal.
Marina’s performance was a powerful display of human behaviour that illustrated the fragility of limits of human courtesy and dignity. It was a disturbing revelation that humans may be capable of unspeakable cruelty to fellow human beings once fear of stigmatization and accountability is removed.
Are we naturally inclined and effectively trained by society to be kind, respectful and compassionate? Or, are we clever pretenders who conceal dark, “inhuman”, evil personalities that surface as soon as society switches off its monitoring and control systems on its members or when we outgrow those systems?