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PETP, or, Unintended Consequences

(Illustration by Rose M. Spielman; Psychology: OpenStax, p. 519, Fig 14.22


“There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.”


Since the October War on Gaza began, I’m told, we’ve been killing a thousand children a week.

For an instant, when Joe Biden said, don’t repeat our mistakes, there was a flash, a glimmer, a mirage maybe, but there was something. After all, sometimes we do learn, sometimes we know the history, sometimes we’re not doomed to repeat it. Take, for instance, the history of psychology. I studied that stuff a lifetime ago, but you can look it up, fact-check me. You should, really.

I say “we” because I pay my taxes. Our money, our scientists, our weapons, so, yes, aiding and abetting.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there were various experiments that still get discussed. For example, Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, where they had male students assigned to play the roles of either prisoners or guards. Shit got ugly, fast, and they eventually shut it down. Not quickly enough. Or the even more famous experiments performed by Stanley Milgram at Yale, where participants were asked to deliver what they believed to be fatal levels of electric shock, because a “learner” gave wrong answers on a quiz. There too, it got ugly, though what was measured is still an open question. Were the participants just blindly following orders, like sheep, or were they thinking for themselves, making their own choices? A lot to ask, in the name of science, but, hey, sacrifices are sometimes necessary. Ask not what your country can do for you. . .

A federal lawsuit has been filed against Biden, Blinken, and Austin for “failing to prevent an unfolding genocide.”

Or was that “what your country might do to you”? Both the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments are generally cited as factors which led to the 1974 National Research Act and the Belmont Report, and then, in fairly short order, to the establishment of Institutional Review Boards that would evaluate the ethics of any research involving human subjects. Of course, research is also done on animals, not just humans. Take, for example, the work of Martin Seligman at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to investigate a phenomenon he termed “learned helplessness.” We know, of course, that positive reinforcement isn’t the only way to affect behavior. Negative reinforcement works too, though it does often have unintended consequences. Seligman trained some dogs to press a lever that would stop an electric shock; he then had them jump over a barrier in their cage in order to escape a shock that was delivered through a grid on the floor. He also taught other dogs that the lever did nothing, that there was no way to escape the shocks. Those dogs never learned to jump the barrier. They would just lie down and whimper.

US support for Israel—whether through military and other aid or through UN vetoes—has never faltered. Not yet.

Though I don’t mean to imply any direct causal relation, it probably isn’t entirely a matter of chance that the key text of the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation, came out during these years, in 1975. Its author, Peter Singer teaches at Princeton (down the road from Penn). It shouldn’t be surprising either that one of the key moments in this movement was the laboratory film footage taken by members of the Animal Liberation Front from Penn’s Head Injury Clinic; it showed researchers joking about brain-damaged baboons. The footage was then turned into a film by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA): Unnecessary Fuss.

Recently I also learned that an investigation of crimes committed in the Israeli occupation of Palestine has been opened (and then slow walked) by the International Criminal Court. The US and Israel, along with Russia and Sudan, are the only signatory countries to declare their intention not to take part in the ICC. One must assume, then, that the intention of these four states is to continue committing war crimes, along with the refusal to be held accountable for them. Yet, if the ICC investigation in Palestine were allowed to continue, and international law was followed, it would surely include all parties to the horrors occurring today, i.e. the command authority of both sides, as well as those who aid and abet.

By now, I shouldn’t need to repeat the comments made by the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, two days after the attacks of October 7, but I will anyway. “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly,” he said. On October 10, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, commented in a radio interview, “I don’t call them human animals because that would be insulting to animals.” Calls to “erase Gaza” by an Israeli pop singer, for “Nakba 2” by an Israeli TV commentator, for the “Gaza Nakba,” by the agricultural minister, or “to remember what Amalek has done to you,” by the Prime Minister himself, all have been widely reported. Yet what struck me most were the evacuation leaflets the Israelis dropped yesterday in Southern Gaza. I imagine they simply printed up another batch of the ones they’d already used in Northern Gaza, when they ordered the same people to leave their homes there. Are they kidding? Or just killing? This shit has to stop.

Thomas Hobbes once said that he and fear were born as twins, and he believed that self-preservation was our most elemental instinct. He also believed only autocratic, religious rule could keep us from a war of each against all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, argued that compassion was equally foundational and not species-specific. He thought humanity could do better.

You wouldn’t treat a dog that way.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Palestinians


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