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Monthly Archives: February 2014

(Unsuccessful) Bloody revolution in Barnsley, 1820 & Georgia, 2013: How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

A story in the Huffington Post, spotted by Occupy Posters (well worth following: ):

Georgia Men Used Facebook To Plot Anti-Government Militia Uprising, Prosecutors Say
Three Georgia men were charged in federal court this week with plotting an attack against the government designed to trigger martial law and encourage other militias to join their violent uprising.

The men were trapped by an FBI informant:

Cannon told an FBI cooperating source on Feb. 8 that the group was planning to “start a fight” with the government by attacking power grids, transfer stations and water treatment facilities, which they hoped would trigger martial law, according to prosecutors. Cannon said he would invite the FBI’s source to a private Facebook group, where plans were being made, according to the government.
Later, on Feb. 15, Cannon told another FBI informant the types of weapons that Peace allegedly wanted. The FBI gave the cooperating informant 12 non-working pipe bombs and two high-temperature thermite devices. The three men met with the cooperating informant, who handed over the thermite devices. The three suspects were arrested as the cooperating informant went to obtain another box of supplies.

So, that’s good: we’ve had quite enough Christian terrorism (or, more precisely, terrorist acts carried out by those purporting to be Christians) over the last century or so.

Occupy Posters took the trouble to track down some of the Facebook posts from the accused:

..which make interesting reading. I was puzzled to start with by Cannon’s term SHTF, but realised it’s when the Shit Hits The Fan. I’m not sure if this is the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, or when the Revolution kicks off, or maybe both/either.
On reading these, however, I was reminded of stuff I’ve just been reading written by English revolutionaries in the early 19th century, in Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. This was a time when there seem to have been (according to Thompson, at least) groups of disaffected people all over England planning real, bloody revolution with sword, gun and pike. Of course, they never got it together to actually do anything, and, as above, plots were defused by government spies and informers (and maybe provocateurs), as in the Pentridge rising and the Cato Street Plot. There was a real expectation among some people that once the levolution had started, people would join in and make an unstoppable wave – if only people would step up and join in. In Georgia in 2013, Brian Cannon moans:

I am absofuckinglutely sick and tired of all the keyboard commandos that only know how to run their mouths!! Sure they claim to train but what the fuck for? Seriously, why waste the time and energy if you are not willing to do something with that training?
(First link above)

The English revolutionaries had similar problems:

The Barnsley Radicals expected all the north and the Midlands to rise on the same night. They were to proceed to Grange Moor, where they would rendezvous with other contingents, and then proceed:
‘…through Barnsley to Sheffield and on to London. It was said the Scotsmen would be at Leeds as soon as us or not above a day’s march behind us.’
Perhaps 300 assembled, with drums, weapons, haversacks (with three days provisions) and a green flag with black fringe: ‘He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall surely be put to death.’ They were marshalled by two former soldiers, Comstive (a ‘Waterloo man’ and a ‘good penman’) and Addy (who wore the symbolic white hat). They trudged the twelve miles to Grange Moor, picking up small parties on the way, arriving in the small hours to find the rendezvous deserted. After waiting for some time, the rumour of a Government plot spread through the ranks, and they scattered in dismay. For these two attempts, Comstive, Addy, and several others were transported.
[…] On 14 April a weaver, Joseph Tyas, was apprehended near Huddersfield, and in his wife’s cap a letter was found, addressed by him to ‘our brethren in Lankaster Shire’:

Dearly beloved—
We hope you are comeng on pretty well though your Captifeity is painful. . . . Our Musick in Yorkshire as played twise where yours in Lankashire has never struck at all, is your Musicians sick? …
Melancholy, Melancholy, Melancholy Yorkshire, your Reformers stand true. … About 300 at Grange Moor, they marched all night, each man had is Blanket Spare [Spear] or Gon & well filed with ammunition poor Men to be so deceived by short sighted men it would have tuck an afect on your feelings to have seen the brave men stand under their arms all that weet night after a march of 12 miles and Not one Man to meet them according to Apointment all their pike shafts were left on the more the blades taken out except 3 or 4 which was to feast in [too fast in], the poor Men stud with charefull [cheerful] hearts till daylight beating the drums and their breast but no other partity joyned them. All at a loss to know what to do. Return to Barnsley they could no think of but when there was no other prospect they all begain to shed tears Most bitterly with Crys of the most distracted …
‘I hope,’ the letter concludes, ‘that we may all meet in one Body and one Voice yet.. ‘(Thompson pp776-7)

I’m sure I could find a similar sort-of religious piece from around 1820 to match Tony Kinsey’s:

I ask that you [God] be with all the good men, women and children that will stand up in defiance of the wicked rulers and in defense of our Country and the world. I ask that you shield us and those we protect from harm and injury. Give us great speed and accuracy, make us invisible to our enemies and our enemies easily seen. Help us to destroy those that make this world painful and miserable so that one day all hearts will radiate your love freely without constraint.
(Second link above)

– but I had to take Thompson’s book back to the library, so I can’t search for quotes at the moment.

I have some sympathy (at a comfortable distance of 200 years) with the English radicals, and none at all with modern right wing terrorists, but as well as similar laments (better expressed, though with worse spelling, by Tyas than by Cannon), there’s the same underlying problem: the rich grinding the faces of the poor.
That fits with something else I found online. A posting from one of the ‘53%’ (the 53% of US workers who pay Federal tax, according to Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign, and who may see themselves as supporting the rest of the idle, feckless scum who probably voted for Obama), in the genre of posting a selfie holding up a handwritten testament started by ‘I am the 99%’ (fascinating stuff: just do a Google image search for “I am the 99%”: try “53%” and “47%”, too). The text reads (you can see the image in the Daily Kos link below. I can’t find the original, so I’m not able to credit it):

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

Which really socks it to the ‘99%’ whiners, but as Max Udargo gently but very effectively points out in his ‘Open Letter to That 53% Guy’: …the statement itself shows the reality of the problem the whiners are on about: is that really what it takes for an ordinary person to get along in the richest country around? And how could you raise a family that way?

And if so, it’s not so surprising that there are people looking for ‘the Second American Revolution’ and thanking God for ‘for the opportunity to kill the bad guys that are wicked and vile’ (Tony Kinsey in the Cory Williamson link above).

As Blind Alfred Reed asked at another difficult time How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Best ever modern version: Ry Cooder & Flaco Jimenez: (you can find a Springsteen version on YouTube, too)

DISCLAIMER: I’m not advocating violent revolution here, either in Barnsley or Georgia, and yes, I have checked my privilege, as someone who isn’t a poor man and is living very comfortably in these times, but I think there are fascinating – and worrying – parallels here.

Thompson,EP (1980)  The Making of the English Working Class London: Gollancz

The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples)

LevineRotten Apples

(Image from Alan Levine at

This is the second of three posts on the Stanford Prison Experiment: the myth of what happened (last post), an alternative explanation for what happened (this post), and how that relates to the abuses at Abu Ghraib (next post).
The oversimplified version of the SPE is that the guards all became abusive, irrespective of their values and personalities, because they fell into the role required of them in the prison situation. Zimbardo’s full account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) shows it was much more complicated than that, and he discusses thoughtfully and at length the various processes involved. As usual, this shows the value of going back to original accounts or papers, rather than relying on the text-book versions. I’ve discussed in the previous post how Zimbardo’s account shows considerable ‘personality-related’ variation in behaviour amongst both prisoners and guards, and questioned the extent to which situation/role governed everyone’s behaviour (though Zimbardo points out quite convincingly how he himself was overcome by the expectations of the ‘prison governor’ role).

The kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen in other total institutions* (schools, children’s homes, care homes: see examples in the previous post), so the ‘SPE effect’ is pretty robust – but not all these total institutions have potentially dangerous inmates and a punitive (or at least corrective) ethos like a prison, so it can’t be simply the ‘prison guard role’ which is causing the effect.
My explanation is rather simple: individuals with a propensity for bullying and the ‘rotten apple’ effect, coming together in a total institution environment with lax controls on worker behaviour.

Zimbardo’s account distinguishes clearly between the ‘tough guards’ and the ‘good guards’, and even discusses a power struggle between them, which the tough guards win. One individual stands out: a guard named by Zimbardo in the book as Hellman (not his real name), who the other guards nicknamed ‘John Wayne’. In the available videos of the SPE which you may have seen he is a tall guard with straight fair hair who usually appears as taking a lead role in taunting the prisoners, and The Lucifer Effect emphasises his dominance and enthusiasm for mistreating the prisoners (which Hellman presents as his own ‘experiment’ to see how far he could go before someone stopped him: Zimbardo, 2007, p194).
Zimbardo commented on him, years later: “He was creative in his evil. He would think up very ingenious ways to degrade, to demean the prisoners.” BBC2 (2002)
Just after the end of the experiment, one of the prisoners talking to Hellman about how he might have behaved himself as a guard says: “I don’t think, I don’t believe, I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t think l would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand? […] I think I would have been a guard, I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece!.” Zimbardo 2007, p193
I also remember Zimbardo reporting a conversation between one of the other guards and Hellman: “I know we have to do this stuff, Dave, but you don’t have to be so damn good at it.” I’m ashamed to say I can’t find the source for this now: if you know it, please let me know.

So, a personality difference, with one person seemingly more inclined to be abusive than others. But several other guards followed his lead, and no other guard, even ones that both Zimbardo and the prisoners regarded as ‘good guys’, effectively stopped the abuse. This is where the rotten apple effect comes in.

Rotten apples

Whenever some example of institutional abuse or corruption emerges, some senior spokesperson will blithely say ‘of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but….’ to reassure the public that there’s no fundamental problem. Such people are using a metaphor they don’t understand (don’t you hate people like that?), are actually confirming (if they understood what they were saying) that there is a real systemic problem, and worst of all DON’T KNOW ABOUT STORING FRUIT. The point about a rotten apple is that it quickly makes all the other apples in the barrel rotten. If it’s not removed at the first sign of decay, the whole lot can be lost. And that’s what rotten apples do: they’re not isolated instances – they’re centres of systemic corruption, once they’re allowed to get away with their rottenness. That seems to be what happened in the SPE: a ‘creatively evil’ person, running their own ‘experiments’, and lax management (Zimbardo), who allowed that kind of thing to take hold. Zimbardo is well aware of that in retrospect, and in The Lucifer Effect he staunchly owns up to his responsibility. Zimbardo does understand the metaphor, but he turns it around by suggesting that the situation was a ‘rotten barrel’ which infected the apples, not the other way around. There is some truth in that, and it may be a characteristic of total institutions (especially those with lax management) to provide ideal conditions for the infection to spread unopposed, but the influence of someone like guard Hellman is an important starting point. There seems to have been a similar influence at Abu Ghraib, which I’ll describe in the next post.

* The term ‘total institution’ comes from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: well worth reading as background to all this stuff. (Everything Goffman wrote is well worth reading.)

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together live an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Goffman, 1961, 1991: p11 in 1991 Penguin edition

An ‘appreciable period of time’ doesn’t have to be continuous, I think, so day schools can fit here, though boarding schools do fit better.

The standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment is:
C Haney, C Banks, P Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), but you probably won’t be able to get hold of that.

BBC2 (2002) The Stanford Prison Experiment

Goffman, Erving (1991, 1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates London: Penguin Books

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at (but that’s not a substitute for reading the book).

(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (,

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at
Also see for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at