All posts by Colin Spence

Colin Spence is an Associate Editor at the Claremont Independent. A senior majoring in Government and Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, Colin is originally from Boston, but would like to point out his reasons for coming to Claremont were not entirely climate related.

Senate Watch

For most Americans, the mid-term elections are a non-event. Without the fanfare and national messaging of a presidential race, voters are generally less engaged and turn out at a rate about 20 percentage points lower than on a presidential election year. However, this election year is an important one. With no presidential race, the important elections are for the Senate, which could turn Republican for the first time since 2008. The Democrats are especially vulnerable in this cycle, not only because of President Obama’s approval ratings, which are in the low 40s, but also because they have more seats in play than the GOP, at 21 to 15. In addition, of the 15 GOP seats, 12 are considered “safe” by political handicappers. By comparison, only 7 of the Democrats’ 21 are considered “safe,” while another one of their seats, in Montana, is actually considered safe for Republicans. Currently, 8 Democratic seats are involved in competitive races, half of which are currently tilted towards a GOP victory.

Ultimately, Republicans will need a net gain of 6 seats or more to retake the Senate. In addition to Montana, the GOP will probably take a Democratic seat in West Virginia, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito was leading Secretary of State Natalie Tennant by 17 points. The GOP is also slated to pick up a seat in South Dakota, where Mike Rounds, a former Governor leads Independent Larry Pressler a former GOP Senator, and Democrat Rick Weiland, a businessman, by 15 and 10 points, respectively. In addition to those three, Republicans will need to pick up at least 3 of 6 competitive Democratic seats. The best opportunity for the GOP is in Arkansas where Tom Cotton, a congressman and decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, faces incumbent Mark Pryor. Cotton’s advantage comes from both Arkansas’ political inclination and President Obama’s unpopularity, especially with regards to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This pattern is consistent for most vulnerable Democrats, who are attempting to distance themselves from the unpopular ACA and president and trying to make the campaign about social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, which the GOP has struggled with in the past. In addition to the ACA, vulnerable Democrats have been trying to distance themselves from the President’s energy agenda, as 3 very competitive races are in energy producing states, including Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Udall in Colorado. For these three incumbents, winning depends on their ability to move the narrative away from the White House and Washington, and onto local issues. Iowa, another competitive race, is an unique case in the sense that it is competitive because the Democratic candidate, Congressman Bruce Braley, has been caught in a series of gaffes, including one where he was caught on video disparaging sitting Senator Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school”. This sort of gaffe, has made what was supposed to be an easy race for Democrats has become one of the most competitive in the country. The final competitive Democratic seat is Kay Hagan’s in North Carolina, where she faces state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. Tillis has attacked Hagan in a similar fashion to other Republicans, mainly based on her connection to Obama and other national Democrats. Hagan has responded by criticizing Tillis over controversial actions taken by the state legislature, including voter ID and abortion laws. Hagan currently has a small lead in the polls, leading Tillis by approximately 2 points.

In addition to picking up 6 seats, the GOP will need to defend 3 vulnerable seats. The most vulnerable is Pat Roberts in Kansas, who after a difficult primary, expected to have an easier general election campaign, as Independent Greg Orman and Democrat Chad Taylor were expected to split the Democratic vote. However, Taylor dropped out of the race in favor of Orman, who is now running level with Roberts. The other vulnerable Senator is Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky. While McConnell is predicted to win his race, his opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has poured a substantial amount of money into unseating the Minority Leader. National Republicans have responded by spending even more money to protect McConnell and attack Grimes. As a result, Kentucky has become one of the most expensive races this cycle, with both sides spending at least a combined $40 million thus far. Finally, the GOP needs to defend Saxby Chambliss’ open seat in Georgia. The race features political newcomers from both parties, with a businessman, David Perdue, on the ticket for the GOP, and the CEO of a non-profit, Michelle Nunn, representing the Democrats. Perdue has a small lead in the polls, by about 3 points, but is ultimately expected to defeat Nunn in this Southern red state.

At this point, the GOP stands a fair chance of regaining control of the Senate, but changes in the national political scene in coming weeks could lead to them falling short, with Democrats maintaining a smaller majority, or even getting a rare 50-50 split, where Vice President Biden would then be frequently called upon to break ties. There are only a few weeks left before the nation finds out which it will be.

Boycotting Israeli Academics? A Response to TSL

The American Studies Association (ASA), a scholarly group that publishes American Quarterly, announced in a statement Dec. 16 that it “endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.”

The ASA’s statement was strongly criticized by the greater world of academia, with dozens of universities and university presidents, including Pomona’s President Oxtoby, condemning the move. President Sean Decatur of Kenyon College stated that the boycott contradicted the concept of academic freedom, which he defined as “the unfettered exchange of ideas.”

This response repudiated the burgeoning movement in some realms of academia to define academic freedom as “the unfettered exchange of ideas – so long as those ideas adhere to a left-liberal orthodoxy. If not, utilize the existence of right-leaning beliefs to infer a degree of moral turpitude upon the person and engage in thinly veiled ad hominem.”

Admittedly this interpretation was also limited by its verbosity, but it still apparently holds some sway in the precincts of Pomona College, where an Opinions writer in the Feb. 7 issue of The Student Life took issue with President Oxtoby and dozens of other universities’ stance on the importance of academic freedom.

There seems to be some confusion on the part of this column about the facts on the ground. The author declared that Israel has “one of the most illiberal systems of education,” but then completely failed to mention a single university located inside the nation of Israel and seemed to interpret border security measures between warring states as a direct attack on Palestinian academia, and not as a larger part of being in a state of combat. In addition, the author does not mention that, at Israeli universities, students are admitted regardless of ethnicity or faith. Nor does the author mention that these institutions actually practice affirmative action to increase Arab attendance. In addition, the “most illiberal” charge becomes laughable when one considers that Israel has a free press and strongly independent judiciary, and that most of its neighbors are dictatorships that do impose limits on the press and academics, and engage in actual political oppression (see Iran’s hanging of sexual and political dissidents; Egypt’s targeting of Christians; everything Syria has done recently, etc.).

This confusion continues as the author notes that Israel’s activities “have been likened to those of South African apartheid.” The passive voice here is important, because the author can simply make the insinuation without substantiating it in any way. To clarify, ethnic minorities in Israel can serve in government, vote, and benefit from Israeli social services. The only conceivable similarity is that the bulk of Palestinians are physically separated from the Israelis, but unlike South Africa, their separation stems from the fact that they have two (or three, depending on how one categorizes the Hamas-Fatah split) de facto national governments and distinct, if disputed, territory. The two are in conflict with one another, but the history, attitudes, and policies are very different from those in South Africa.

The writer also trotted out a point that claims Israel has violated more UN resolutions than any other nation. What he does not explain is that these resolutions were issued primarily by the General Assembly, a generally petty and vindictively political body, and were also non-binding, a term that should not need defining but apparently has some nuance that escaped our TSL author. The only thing this little statistic tells us is that the General Assembly has a disproportionate interest in the nation of Israel. In addition, the UN frequently ignores the transgressions of its authoritarian member-states in favor of attacking the politically vulnerable. For example, in a recent report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child condemned the Holy See for its treatment of children and further demanded that the Vatican abandon several of its long-held political and moral positions in favor of the UN doctrine. It is rather surprising that this was the most pressing issue for this UN committee, but considering that it is made up of members from human rights stalwarts such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and until last year, Syria, its judgments should probably just be held as sacrosanct. In reality, however, the UN is hardly an authoritative body to appeal to in this instance.

None of this is to say that Israel is blameless, or that it has not committed transgressions in this conflict. Very few countries can actually claim and hold the moral high ground, and attempting to develop a simple “good/bad” dichotomy, on either side, serves no practical purpose. To do so would simply drive one party from the negotiating table. This is the primary issue with the ASA’s boycott and the TSL author’s support for it. The boycott attempts to ideologically isolate one side, which will likely lead to belief polarization and continued conflict. This is a region with political, religious and ethnic conflicts that span millennia. However, the TSL author seems to think that isolating Israel further will make them more likely to negotiate. This seems unlikely, because while the author heavily emphasized the Palestinian liberty interests, he failed to note that the Israelis also have pressing liberty and security concerns. The Israelis are already isolated, considering that countries that they have fought against on multiple occasions in the last 70 years surround them. In addition, several of their neighbors have also denied their right to exist at various points in time. Isolating them further will not convince them of the security of their position, nor is it at all justified in the context of this conflict. Free academic exchanges will keep international influence ensconced in both countries and improve the likelihood of a real solution. Only an incredibly tendentious reading of history can justify defining this conflict in an absurdly simple and dualistic manner and make a boycott a reasonable response. A real solution means bringing both sides into negotiations, not just one.

[This article has been edited to reflect the fact that The Student Life article referenced is an opinion piece rather than a news article.]

Thursday Night Club Controversies: What to Expect

The social scene at Claremont McKenna is a tradition that is oft referenced as something that sets the school apart. Part of this tradition is Thursday Night Club or TNC. This Thursday night party has had its high points and low points, but it remains a very visible part of the social scene. However, a new tradition has recently emerged in conjunction with TNC: The theme for the party inevitably provokes outrage and accusations of insensitivity, largely from the other 4Cs.

Last year, the consortium experienced two separate incidents surrounding proposed TNC themes.  The two theme proposals that provoked a negative response did so for such disparate reasons that it seems likely a similar incident will occur again this year.

The first was provoked by a survey in which students got to come up with suggestions for the party and then vote for their favorite theme. One of the entries was a Thanksgiving-themed suggestion entitled “Thanksgiving: Bros, Pilgrims and Navajos,” which utilized the common TNC rhyming scheme of “Bros and Hoes.” While the suggestion was eventually passed over in favor of another name, the Pomona-centric student newspaper, the Student Life, reported that the theme drew complaints and allegations of racism. The complaints charged that the theme was historically and culturally insensitive and that CMC in general lacked proper education in cultural sensitivity. Such sweeping generalizations overlooked the context of the theme suggestion and weakened valid arguments against it. The theme could be perceived as derogatory, but the complaints failed to recognize the traditionally light-hearted nature of TNC themes and the highly educated and aware audience at which it was aimed.  The controversy quickly devolved into interschool arguing and very little was resolved.

The second controversy came later in the year, when a theme entitled “Camo & Ammo” drew protests that the theme was insensitive given the then recent Newtown shooting. In response, CMC’s student government, the Associated Students of CMC (ASCMC), changed the title to “Camo TNC,” and then “Zero Dark 30’s.” While some may not agree with the outrage over the earlier theme, the motivation behind it was at least understandable. The complaints about the second theme, however, appeared to be only tangentially related to the underlying issue and a manifestation of politically correct hypersensitivity. The theme was supposed to promote a camouflage- and military-themed party, and it is difficult to see how that directly relates to a civilian shooting. Censoring all things firearms-related in our culture would mean cutting out large swathes of our cultural product and accomplish little in the interim. This controversy appears almost opportunistic – an opportunity to complain about an event without any real justification. The difference between this complaint and the one from earlier in the year indicates that such a controversy will happen again this year.

Such controversies will happen again because the gap between the general student body, who care only briefly about the theme to begin with and forget it soon after the party ends (or even before that point), and the activists, who make increasingly ominous proclamations that the theme of a Thursday night party contributes to broader ongoing societal disorder, is quite broad. For some of the themes, greater sensitivity would avoid needless division, but for others, reflection and a better perspective would forestall protests of every single idea that isn’t bland and whitewashed.

The end lesson of all this is, quite simply, that you cannot make everyone happy all of the time. The people who plan TNC are charged with coming up with creative and entertaining ideas so the parties remain fresh and attended. These ideas, meant for a specific audience, may not always mesh perfectly with the ideals of every single student at the 5C’s, and some may annoy or even offend people on campus. It happens. What is important to remember is that these events are meant to allow students a chance to unwind and have some fun. If a theme significantly impedes that goal, speak out. People have different perspectives and, coupled with time constraints, may fail to consider all the implications and impact of their ideas. However, as no one should expect to be vindicated all the time, when raising issues with the themes, let’s restrict complaints to substantive arguments that move the debate forward, not accusations that stop conversation.

The Enemies of Voltaire: Campus Speech Codes

Claremont Mckenna College President Pamela Gann sent out an email April 19 regarding the confrontation between a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization and a CMC faculty member. The email included a forwarded memo from Dean of Students Mary Spellman, and summarized the findings of the six-week investigation that the school had conducted. In those intervening six weeks, the incident and the subsequent investigation has been discussed at length in the student media and in the general student body. While the appropriateness and meaning of the professor’s words were scrutinized, along with the investigation’s alleged increased interest in SJP’s adherence to event protocol, the effectiveness and even the fundamental necessity of the school’s policy on demonstrations and free speech were not. These policies have produced a substantial amount of the frustration with these proceedings. Among these policies, both CMC’s policy on demonstrations and general events, as well as the Consortium’s “bias-related incident” policy are substantially responsible for the deafening lack of important discourse on the topic.

The policy on demonstrations has been addressed in other publications, but the “bias-related incident” policy, which has received less coverage, poses a similar if not more insidious threat to freedom of speech. This threat stems from the policy’s mere existence, as it can be used to silence and discredit opponents by mere insinuation. In this case, a Pitzer student, Najib Hamideh ’15, claimed that Dr. Yaron Raviv, a CMC associate professor, used racially charged language when addressing him. The longrunning investigation noted that Raviv apologized for the inappropriateness of his language, and also indicated that Raviv “stated that his intent in using the term ‘cockroach’ was to respond to the student by indicating that he thought of the student as someone who could not harm him.” Raviv also said that his harsh outburst was in response to Hamideh saying, “You’re a faculty here. I will hunt you down,” which Hamideh denied saying. In addition the report also noted that after the confrontation, Hamideh returned to the demonstration and attempted to identify the professor, when, “At least one witness reported that, while doing so, the student stated that he would ‘hunt down’ the faculty member. The student did not recall making the statement but did not deny doing so.” Such facts cast a new light on this incident, and add doubt to the prevailing version of the story. These new facts do change the discussion, but what was said and by whom should not have been at issue in this case. That these were the relevant questions covered by student media represents the failings of our current speech policy.

The main culprit is the “bias-related incident” filing, which should have been dismissed out of hand. The reason? Despite the policy’s vague name, the policy itself is quite specific. As stated in “[The Claremont Colleges Communication Protocol for Bias Related Incidents], the term “bias related incident” is limited to conduct that violates one or more of the Claremont colleges’ disciplinary codes and which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law. A hate crime is an especially severe form of bias related incident, and such crimes fall far beyond the bounds of constitutional protection.” (Emphasis added.) Even at its broadest, the accusations leveled against Raviv did not even come close to meeting this standard. Speech that is not protected by the First Amendment is, by nature, an extremely narrow category, and also generally falls under the purview of actual law and renders such a code superfluous. Discourtesies, no matter how inappropriate or offensive they are deemed to be, are a private matter and should not be the subject of an official inquiry. When such speech turns to actual unlawful harassment, then the appropriate law should be applied, but again, the speech alleged in this case fell well short of that standard. To justify having a code like the “bias-related incident” policy, its purpose would have to be unique and significant enough to override any concerns that the code’s existence could endanger free speech. The “bias-related incident” policy does not meet such a standard, and is too easily wielded as an instrument that summarily silences opponents and moves discussion out of the public sphere and behind the closed doors of the investigating committee.

While the policies on events and demonstrations are not as detrimental to the freedom of discourse as the “bias-related incident” policy, they can still negatively impact speech, and are worth examining. In this case, two aspects of the policy were involved in a consequential manner. The first was the requirement that the event pre-register with the Dean. While the school does not specifically require protests to register, it does require, as specified in CMC’s Guide to Student Life, “any events held in any College building (including the residence halls); [or] events held outside…” to be registered. By basically requiring all events in public spaces to register, the college has created a bureaucratic obstacle that makes protest more difficult and restricts speech because of it. Ideally, the college would create a special dispensation in the event policy for peaceful political protests, with the understanding that that status would be revoked if the gathering no longer met the description of “peaceful political protest.” In addition to modifying the event policy, the policy on demonstrations’ terminology could do with some adjustment.

The college faces an understandable dilemma in this case, as it must balance its interests of protecting the rights and safety of its students while simultaneously protecting and promoting an atmosphere of free and vibrant speech on campus. To accomplish this, the college endorses free speech, but prohibits “disruptive or nonpeaceful actions.” The Guide to Student Life also goes on to define these terms, and while non- peaceful action is largely self-explanatory, it should be noted that disruptive activity is defined as “a deliberate disruption or an impedance of access to regular activities of the College or of the College community, including those which restrict free movement on the campus.” This definition does not recognize that protests are by nature disruptive from time to time, as they need to disrupt daily activity to a degree to have an impact. The policy could benefit from modification that amends it to prohibit significant or substantive disruption, so as to allow protesters to make their point while also allowing students to complete their daily activities. On the other hand, the students involved in a protest have an obligation to ensure that their activity is a peaceful protest and not a substantial disruption and a hazard to their fellow students. In the SJP event, this did not occur, as the investigation noted, “The event participants complied with requests to adjust their event so as to not restrict access for a period of time, but at a certain point reorganized themselves in a manner that again restricted access.” The right of free speech should be strongly biased in favor of the speaker, but on private property, especially, there should be some reciprocity to allow for the balancing of speech and safety concerns.

This recent incident, contentious and emotionally charged, has also exposed a deeper and more systemic problem. The SJP incident revealed significant flaws with the policies that regulate speech on campus, flaws that hinder the free exchange of ideas and hurt the Consortium’s role as a bastion of open and free communication. These flaws either harm speech by allowing individuals to be silenced and summarily branded as a bigot on the basis of hearsay, or by obstructing speech through prior restraint, such as when events must be approved before they can happen. Both flaws are an anathema to free speech, and need to be corrected. That way, in the future, we do not have to shift our focus from the main issue to assess the validity of valid speech, but can instead engage in discussion and argument about the substantive issue, and enrich one another.

5C divestment campaign: slaying (oil) giants or just tilting at windmills?

Anthropogenic global warming, rising tides or melt­ing icecaps; these terms represent the burgeoning visibility and prevalence of the issues surrounding climate change. In modern political discourse, arguments about these issues grow increasingly contentious and urgent. This discourse has ex­panded into all corners of the country and also onto the 5Cs. Last semester, the 5C Student Divestment Campaign began to call for the Claremont Colleges “to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.” This campaign is a part of a larger, national campaign organized by, a website started by renowned environ­mentalist Bill McKibben, to convince schools, governments, religious institutions and other organizations to divest from the fossil fuel industry. This campaign though, while founded with good intentions, does have several key flaws.

There are several issues with this divestment campaign, both at the campus level and at the national campaign’s level. At the 5Cs specifically, demands for equivalence between the schools ignores the financial realities at the differing institu­tions. At Pitzer, where endowment returns only cover five per­cent of operating costs, such a decision does not have the same substantial financial impact that the same decision does at Cla­remont McKenna or Pomona, where the endowments cover 28 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of operating costs. En­dowments usually rely upon stable long-term investments to provide consistent profits that then cover operating costs. Di­vesting from stable, mature industries like the traditional energy industry and transferring those funds to younger, more volatile alternative energy companies should not be undertaken lightly. In addition, the fact that representatives of the 5C divestment campaign argued that their efforts were based on “moral, sci­entific and philosophical” reasons, coupled with the national campaign’s claim that companies like Exxon and Chevron are “very risky investments,” raises concerns that very real finan­cial considerations are being overlooked. Such companies are in fact blue chip stocks listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Av­erage, and represent stable and reliably profitable investment vehicles. Such considerations should not be ignored, especially at schools that rely upon endowment income to provide an ex­cellent education to its students. In the end, each institution will need to decide for itself whether or not divestment repre­sents the correct approach to climate change, whether such an approach can work within its investment strategy, and whether it is worth the costs. At the national and international level, the problems become more serious and wide-ranging, and even the efficacy of the divestment approach itself becomes suspect.

Divestment became the activist approach du jour after the campaign to divest funds from Apartheid-era South Africa and has been suggested as a solution in subsequent campaigns against other nations and corporations. Whether it will work against a multi-national industry, however, is highly suspect. In the South African case, which freely admits inspired their campaign, the divestment campaign targeted a certain policy implemented by a single centralized authority. This fact meant that it was easy to target business activity in one very specific region without disrupting the global economy signifi­cantly. The United States did exactly this in the South African case when it passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which banned all new U.S. trade and investment in the country. Now try to imagine the U.S. issuing a similar law in regards to the fossil fuel industry. The success of a divestment campaign, like the one imposed on South Africa, relies on high levels of participation. In the South African case, sanctions im­posed by the U.S., Europe and Japan enforced these levels of participation. Such laws are highly unlikely in the case of the fossil fuel industry.

Even if the campaign intends to proceed based upon pri­vate decisions to divest, and attains some critical mass, the fact still remains that the industry is decentralized, and unless the pressure exerted by the campaign is uniform across the board, some companies will benefit whiles the others suffer. This is because instead of a single central authority, like a national government, there are multiple diverse and often unconnected groups to target. The campaign has identified 200 such entities for divestment, and a quick look at the top 25 reveals the incredible diversity between the firms.

To begin with, several of the top 25 companies are not listed on U.S. stock exchanges, and will thus benefit from a U.S.-based divestment campaign, as such a campaign will dis­proportionately target the companies that do trade on Ameri­can exchanges. In addition, seven out of these 25 are state-controlled entities, and would be unlikely to suffer from a divestment campaign, given that their primary or controlling backer also has the power to levy taxes. In fact, such entities may benefit from a successful divestment campaign, as they would be able to acquire assets from their shrinking capitalist competitors. This fact opens up another set of issues surround­ing national security and energy.

Any divestment campaign would naturally damage those companies with more individual, private shareholders, and thus benefit the competing state-run entities. This could become problematic from a national security perspective, as it would shift control of the global energy market into the hands of nations like Russia, China, Brazil, Venezuela and several Middle Eastern nations, all of whom already have a strong presence in this market.

Going “green” is also not a solution to this issue, as the campaign calls for immediate action, and even with the hypo­thetically substantial infusions of capital, the technology can­not improve quickly enough to be ready to immediately take over all energy duties from fossil fuels, and nor can our truck­ing-based infrastructure and predominantly coal- and natural gas-powered electrical systems be replaced overnight.

Devising an alternative solution to divestment is no easy task. However, it seems that’s campaign is based off of the belief that these energy companies are unwilling to change their operations in any way, shape or form. In their FAQs, 350. org claims that “Exxon could still make a profit as an energy company if it transitioned its massive wealth and expertise over to renewables, but they’ll do it because of government regulation, not because they willingly decide to make the move.” This notion defies common sense. Energy companies like Exxon are motivated by profit, and will respond to mar­ket pressures much more positively than to politically vindic­tive regulation. Public opinion determines where the money flows, and private companies follow the cash. It comes as no surprise that most of the predominantly Western, private en­ergy companies have all dedicated some portion of their press materials to alternative energy. For example, Chevron says in the “global issues” section of its website: “Chevron is taking a pragmatic approach to renewable energy—pursuing and focus­ing on technologies that leverage our strengths. These include geothermal, advanced biofuels, solar and energy efficiency technologies.” Even if these statements are viewed cynically, the fact that these companies have made an effort to respond to public opinion and are making an effort to comply with these wishes is encouraging. Attacking these companies and indi­rectly helping the state-run enterprises and oil-states that have no such incentive to change seems counterproductive. Instead, it would be more productive to raise public awareness about climate issues, but more importantly help individuals identify what can be done to promote change on a personal and local level.

Helping individual investors identify financially promis­ing alternative energy companies is one such project. Another method is promoting environmentally sustainable alternatives for use at the corporate level or in local and state government. Sustainability is gaining ground in public opinion, and pushing for awareness of concrete solutions, as opposed to concepts, will help sustainable solutions become more financially vi­able, and subsequently more widespread. Positive grassroots campaigns that create public and market pressures in favor of environmentally friendly solutions and companies are much more likely to produce the changes desired than a divestment campaign, and without the added issues of creating conflicts of interest between financial and moral concerns, as well as avoiding global economic and security concerns.

Zimbardo at the Athenaeum

“All evil starts with 15 volts.” If there was one point that the audience was supposed to remember from Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s Athenaeum speech, it was this. With this one line, Dr. Zimbardo succinctly highlighted his explanation for why people perform evil actions while also tying together a lineage of research that spans decades and regions, and includes some of psychology’s most famous and notorious experiments.

The line itself refers to a series of experiments carried out in the early 1960s by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale. These studies, which were designed to study how ordinary individuals responded to authority, involved the subjects shocking a fictional person for answering questions incorrectly. The fictional “victim” would respond with pre-recorded sounds of pain that would escalate as the shocks increased, until the last 10 levels, where the victim would fall silent and remain that way through the conclusion of the experiment. Milgram polled both senior undergraduates and fellow psychologists, and both groups predicted around one percent of the subjects would administer the maximum shock. The results revealed that both groups were extremely incorrect. Nearly 65 percent of the participants administered the maximum shock, and nearly all were clearly uncomfortable in doing so, yet did so anyway with prodding from the experimenter.

The experiment shocked the world and lent some insight into how ordinary people can come to commit massive atrocities. Dr. Zimbardo noted that it was perhaps the most notorious and controversial experiment in psychology until he conducted his own experiment, referred to now as the Stanford Prison Experiment, approximately a decade later. In Zimbardo’s study, ordinary students were arbitrarily assigned to “prisoner” or “guard” roles in a jail located in the basement of Stanford’s psychology department. The two-week experiment lasted only six days as the guards quickly embraced their role and became more and more authoritarian, ultimately to the point where they were psychologically abusing the prisoners. These results, like the results of the Milgram studies earlier, were shocking. Dr. Zimbardo explicitly pointed out, that these students were chosen because they were considered to be stable and healthy. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo also stated that while the actions of the “guards” became so extreme as to raise ethical and safety concerns, the students, both eventual “guards” and “prisoners,” had indicated a preference for the “prisoner” role. None of these men, he argued, were initially inclined towards the authoritarian role. This study provided substantial support for what he has termed “the Lucifer effect,” which is the notion that over time, ordinary people can transform into evil individuals capable of terrible deeds, given certain circumstances.

Dr. Zimbardo went on to apply these lessons from his study to the case of the guards at Abu Ghraib prison, in which he testified as an expert witness. In this case, guards were accused of abusing prisoners after being left in positions of authority with morally ambiguously instruction and limited oversight. In this case, but in general as well, Zimbardo noted an inclination to blame bad behavior on an individual perpetrator’s disposition, to blame the problem on a few so-called “bad apples.” Dr. Zimbardo went on to explain that this viewpoint contradicts what the research and the facts of the case indicate, which is that the situation, the “apple barrel,” was the problem, and essentially drove ordinary people to become evil and commit atrocities. Zimbardo concluded that while people are still responsible for their actions, preventing future cruelty requires actually addressing the situation or the system that caused the behavioral transformation, as well as the individuals and organizations responsible for creating the system.

Dr. Zimbardo finished his speech by speaking on the topic of heroes. While ordinary people can become evil, Zimbardo argued they also could become heroes in the right circumstances. He stated that most heroes are just ordinary people in dire situations that respond courageously. There is a need in our society to honor and elevate people who do truly heroic things, and to de-emphasize cultural heroes like athletes and celebrities. To ultimately improve society, Dr. Zimbardo prescribed holding ourselves to a higher moral standard in all aspects of society. If we want to shift the balance to good from evil, we need to honor true heroes, pass moral laws, elect moral leaders and make a conscious effort to conduct our daily lives justly. Then perhaps the scales will shift, but not before we take responsibility and act.