Stanford Prison Experiment was insightful and all too personal

Chuck Burton of Steilacoom and pal Samantha
Chuck Burton of Steilacoom and pal Samantha

We often get so caught up in the passions of the moment, in our politics and opinions, that we lose sight of some basic realities.

Amid all the current controversy about police violence, it is easy to forget that cops are just people like anyone else.

The majority are good people trying to do a difficult and dangerous job. But just like any population, some are not so good and should not be wearing uniforms and badges. This problem is age old: Who polices the police?

I do not wish to downgrade the demands and difficulties that cops face daily, trying to be sensitive and protect the safety and rights of the general public, while at the same time knowing that they are subject to random and unexpected dangers.

Authority is a challenging mantle to wear. In 1971, an experiment was held at Stanford University which became so influential that it still resonates today. It is the subject of a new film, “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” currently showing in Tacoma at the Grand Cinema.

In the experiment, 24 college students, whose social profiles were indistinguishable, were randomly assigned to be guards and prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment was meant to run for two weeks, but was shut down in just six days.

Although actual physical violence was not allowed, the guards quickly became extremely abusive while the prisoners became submissive and suffered emotional breakdowns in scenes that could have come out of Abu Ghraib or Nazi Germany.

I know, because I was one of the guards in the experiment. Despite the fact that I was (and still am) a long-haired, radical, antiwar hippie, given the authority and encouraged to wield it in order to further the ends of what I was told the experimenters were trying to study, I engaged in abusive behaviors that haunt me to this day.

In discussing the controversial subject of police overreach and brutality, we must not overlook the fact that unchecked authority can always breed these same behaviors in anybody.

As for the movie: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a feature film based upon real events. As such, and within the limits of the medium, it must distill many weeks comprising the planning, postlude and the six days of the experiment into a two-hour frame.

By necessity the film heightens and sensationalizes the menace, horror and emotional abuse and conflates some incidents, while not even hinting at the long hours of tedium and boredom. Still, as an actual participant I felt that the film does a credible job of recreating the ambience I lived through.

Chuck Burton lives in Steilacoom.