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The Prime Minister, Writing, and an Unethical Psychology Experiment

You've crossed the line now, Mister [1]
You just crossed the line, Mister!

When a country’s leader chooses to attend a Star Wars premiere with twenty sick kids from a children’s hospital—as our newly elected Prime Minister did last month—one wouldn’t think the resulting photo [2] would generate controversy. Not when there is richer material to mine on the subject of his social media use.

For example, on the campaign trail, Justin Trudeau’s signature move was to pose for selfies with clamoring admirers. He continued the practice in the broader world at the G20. In December he and his wife graced the pages of Vogue [3] in a smoldering photoshoot which, with judicious cropping, might easily be mistaken for the cover art of a romance novel. On two past occasions he willingly shed his shirt for charity fundraisers, his abs earning the vocal admiration of celebrity bloggers who promptly declared him a PMILF. (Click here for a NSFW translation [4].)

With a known photogenic, media-cultivating PM, why flip out about this particular photo?

For some the occasion itself was commendable, but the photographer’s presence confirmed a hidden and unworthy motivation. (A Zen koan for politicians: If a leader fails to have a recording device present during a social occasion, did the event really occur?)

Another group sees it as confirmation of our PM’s suspected self-absorption and shallowness. (You’re so vain, you probably think this picture-with-ailing-kids is about you.)

For others it’s fantastic—proof we elected the right guy after a decade with a leader who played cheese grater to our knuckles.

Some see it as a natural extension to his interest in youth and former work as a drama and language arts teacher.

I say, why limit oneself? It could be any combination of the above and point to a powerful fifth motivation—one which has relevance for our writing. To access it, let’s briefly travel briefly back in time.

The Seamy Side of Human Nature

In July 1961, a year after Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Stanley Milgram recruited volunteers for a series of experiments which would be unlikely to get past any modern ethics committee. Participants were told they were helping to evaluate whether punishment facilitated learning. In reality, because of the so-called Nuremburg defense—I did it because I was told to—they were being studied for their susceptibility to authority.

For a full description of the study’s design, check out this link [5]. To watch actual footage of the experiment, view this video [6].

The bottom line of the study: With minimal prompting by a man in a lab coat, for the sake of science, a full 65% of average American test subjects were willing to administer electric shocks to fellow citizens up to and including doses which triggered perceived suffering, unconsciousness and death.

Let me emphasize that: fatal electrocution was on the table for 26 out of 40 individuals.

Future experiments would confirm this number applied to participants in all wealthy Western countries. (For all we know it might apply to less affluent areas of the world, but they weren’t studied.)

If you can forgive the pun, Milgram seized these shocking results as a basis for further experimentation. He tweaked the original study design to see what conditions might lead to higher rebellion rates. Subjects were more likely to stop the experiment and refuse to participate if:

Intrinsic Qualities of Self-Determination

As with another experiment involving electricit [7]y that we discussed here on WU, though, some of the most fascinating information to come out of these experiments involved the resistors. What about the 35% who refused to administer a shock beyond the level marked “danger” on the voltmeter. What made them different [8]?

In short, people who set and maintained their boundaries:

It’s as if they had occasion to say to themselves, prior to the Milgram experiment, “If I intentionally hurt another person when I could have avoided doing so, I know I’ll have lost my way.”

Which brings us back to Canada’s PM, and what I believe to be the motivation behind his Star Wars premiere photo.

Trudeau’s father was a career politician who also served as our PM for a number of years, beginning when Trudeau Junior was a young child. Thus, the son coped with his parents’ divorce and his family’s wrenching dissolution while under public scrutiny. He had an eye-witness view of how the position changes people, and not always for the better.

Via coded language in interviews, I believe Trudeau’s childhood experience acted as a  rehearsal for his upcoming political experiment. It led to him internalizing specific standards and establishing clear markers of personal integrity in advance of when he would be tested. I’d venture he’s made statements like these to his wife: I know I’ll have lost my way when I no longer make time for my own family. Or in this case of this Star Wars premiere, or when he sat with an autistic bo [9]y on the steps of our Parliament, I know I’ll have lost my way when I can’t make time for a struggling child.

Two Significant Implications for Writing

At the personal level, outside our relationship with words and the page, almost everything writers do requires us to work with other people. Heck, in the editorial process, at the level of the page, we’re asked to consider others’ wishes! In the heat of the moment it can be tricky to weigh our desire for approval against our desire for integrity, but a little advance preparation can ensure we’ll land on the side of our better natures.

The following are a list of prompts which might help you get started on the process. I’d suggest you grab a piece of paper and see what happens when you answer them without censorship.

When it comes to book marketing/social media, I know I’ll have lost my way if ____.

When coping with rejection and setbacks, I know I’ll be living in my integrity if I ___.

In my relationship with my publisher or agent, I know I’ll have lost my way if ____.

If the universe should be willing and my writing achieves significant success, I’ll know I’m living my values if ____.

Should I have to deal with a hostile and critical blogger, I wish to handle their attention by____.

What have I omitted that’s relevant for you? For instance, if you are self-published, do you need to think through your relationship with your book formatter? Or maybe you’re thinking of taking on a writing partner. Do you need to discuss this list together?

Now, what about applying this to characters? Does your story question revolve in any way around integrity or self-discovery? Does your main character wrestle with setting boundaries? If so, can you use the findings from the Milgram experiment to ensure your characters run through an integrity gauntlet of maximal intensity? (Make their challenger comparatively powerful and authoritative. Keep your protagonist isolated. Make their boundary-crossing personal and unambiguous.)

Milgram’s experiment would flunk today’s ethics committees because he failed to adequately protect his subjects from the potentially harmful self-knowledge it provided. (I’m the kind of person who’d kill another because I was asked.) All the more reason for us to take what he learned and, five decades later, use it prepare ourselves for writing-related professional challenges. Also, to create integrity tests of equivalent harshness for our characters. By inviting readers to witness moral challenges in a novel or short story, you can create a proofing ground for future integrity.

Be part of the 35%. Help the 35% to grow.

This is your work.

Now, Unboxeders, the floor is yours. Tell us about your writing and if/how it has required you to fight a moral battle between your conscience and an authority figure. Did you win? If not, what did you learn? 

About Jan O'Hara [10]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [11] left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories (Opposite of Frozen [12]; Cold and Hottie [13]) and contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.