Learning the dark truth of the human condition

Human reality is a funny thing. Society, as a whole, behaves differently from individuals – yet is made up of them.

The school system in action, circa 1970...
The school system in action, circa 1970…

Understanding people, individually and en masse, is the raison d’etre of the social sciences. And it strikes me that conceptual realities of human nature often emerge in front of our noses, often in microcosm.

I went to Nelson Park primary school in Napier, New Zealand, as a kid in 1968-72 – an experience that for me had nothing to do with education and everything to do with teachers trying to break me for being left-handed. Most kids – certainly the ones I knew – had crosses of their own to bear at that school. No technique was beyond the pale: teachers even ran mass punishments against classes, knowing the other kids would later turn on whatever kid had triggered the teacher to punish them all. And for any children who still defied the beatings, ridicule and sarcasm by refusing to ‘just snap out of it and swap hands’, or whatever they were being targeted for (I wasn’t the only one), there was always the nuclear option – being ‘sent to’ the school’s ‘go to’ teacher for special punishment.

This teacher was a classic ‘drill sergeant’ – a huge, balding, autocratic brute of a man who threatened, hit, and generally traumatised children into total submission to his power. And he demanded total submission – even ticking kids off for doing what he’d ordered before he issued a separate ‘go’ instruction. You didn’t have to be in his class to be targeted – he prowled the school grounds, and if you were actively ‘sent to’ him to be punished, you knew you’d be hurt. To be accused by him was to be guilty of whatever he assigned you, no defence. Half his power came not from what he actually did, but from what he was threatening to do – the unspoken horror of undefined punishments. Every kid I knew in Nelson Park School was terrified of what he might do to them.

There was only one thing about this man that brought him down to size as far as the kids were concerned. At times his hand would drift to his trouser-front, and he’d start touching his own fly, right there in front of the kids. I have a distinct image in my mind of him flicking the tag on his zip-fastener at assembly. Other kids didn’t forget either, spelling out his habit on the school’s centenary Facebook page, 40-odd years later. As kids, we thought it really funny that this fearsome teacher, of whom we were all in abject terror, also habitually touched his own trousers right in front of everybody.

Incredibly, some kids thought this teacher was the best thing since sliced bread. They adored him. So did some of the parents. One kid, according to the school’s centenary Facebook page, even became a teacher and used this guy’s methods on her own classes. Ouch. So what gives?

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...
Achtung! Obey! Obey! Obey!

It’s long been clear to me that New Zealand’s primary school system had long strayed from moral compass by the time I got there. Hands-on experiments after the Second World War showed how ordinary people could become monsters as a result of being empowered by authoritarian systems. More recent tests have discovered that the reason why the monster emerges is because it makes those doing it feel good about themselves.

The detail of the system – police state, prison, school or whatever – determines what those empowered by it can do and the scale of the bullying that follows. But in terms of the underlying psychology, that detail is less crucial than the nature of an institutional structure that gives power to one group and takes it away from another.

This seems a pretty good explanation, looking back, of that teacher way back when. So what about the kids that welcomed his authority? Hannah Arendt has quite a bit to say about that phenomenon – and so does Norman Dixon. He was a military psychologist. In the mid-1960s he explored the nature of authoritarianism and pointed out there are not just authoritarian leaders, there are also authoritarian followers; people who like being ordered about – who are validated by it. If anybody questions the principles they are told to follow, or criticise the leader who validates them, authoritarian followers become irrationally angry. And so authoritarian leaders gain respect for doing things that, by any measure, fall outside the normal scope of reasonable moral compass.

Doubtless it’s possible to debate Dixon; and, of course, there’s more to his thesis – and the general issue of authoritarian followership – than my brief summary. But it seems to speak about human nature in general, and that’s probably something to give cause for thought.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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5 thoughts on “Learning the dark truth of the human condition

    1. His book’s on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Psychology-Military-Incompetence-Norman-Dixon/dp/0465097804/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

      – not cheap. When it was published it garnered a storm of protest because he was basically repeating the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theory about the First World War command – which wasn’t true – and finding an explanation for it. But outside that particular agenda his reasoning is interesting and fairly sound. Certain professions attract certain sorts of people, because the nature of that profession suits them.

  1. I went to a Catholic primary school and I was one of the best behaved kids in the class – because that was how I had been brought up at home – so the mass punishments kickstarted not respect, but questioning of the system. I guess that was my own personality quirk, but it left me with a lifelong distrust of ‘authority’. As for the authoritarian followers, I’m pretty sure no one in 2017 needs a GPS to find real life examples. 😦

  2. Absolutely fantastic piece! Your primary school sounds like it was really rough. There is also the issue with authoritarian followers mimicking their authoritarian leaders in an attempt to mimic it. To take this in a far darker direction, a number of psychologists, eg Baumeister in his book Evil, have busted the myth that Nazi guards were “just following orders”, explaining that they often had the choice to be reassigned but chose not to- in actuality they ended up inventing their own cruel punishments in order to seek validation from their superiors. Sorry again for taking that in a dark direction!

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