“It calls to mind the questions posed back in the 1960s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who had been fascinated by the impact of spectacle and authority on soldiers’ obedience in Nazi Germany. Milgram wanted to know if German war criminals could have been following orders, as they claimed, and not truly complicit in the death camp atrocities. At the very least, he was hoping to discover that Americans would not respond the same way under similar circumstances. He set up the now infamous experiment in which each subject was told by men in white lab coats to deliver increasingly intense electric shocks to a victim who screamed in pain, complained of a heart condition, and begged for the experiment to be halted. More than half of the subjects carried out the orders anyway, slowly increasing the electric shocks to what they believed were lethal voltages. On a structural level— and maybe also an emotional one— reality TV mirrors much of this same dynamic. No, we’re not literally shocking people, but we are enjoying the humiliation and degradation of the participants, from the safe distance of an electronic medium. The question is not how much deadly voltage can we apply, but how shamefully low can we go? Besides, the producers bear the real brunt of responsibility— just as the men in lab coats did in the research experiments.”
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