Countering JW Shunning: How the Implications of Stanley Milgram's Work May Suggest Using a Different Approach
(Image from July 15, 2011 Edition of Watchtower)
"Ordinary people, simply carrying out actions in the name of (worship to Jehovah), and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terribly-destructive process....even AFTER the destructive effects of their participation becomes patently obvious and they are asked to carry out actions which are incompatible with fundamental standards of basic human decency."
Those words are the conclusion reached by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, speaking about how most humans are vulnerable to acting 'inhuman' when they find themselves under authoritarian control. His words have been modified ever-so-slightly to show how it's just as applicable to the Jehovah's Witnesses practice of shunning.
Of course, shunning is a form of social ostracism used in many ancient societies, including Greece and Ancient Israel. It's a time-tested practice, precisely because it IS so effective. In most cases, it works.
(It's interesting to note that Jews started the practice AFTER they were prohibited by their Gentile overlords from stoning their own people to death, due to the constraints placed upon them by foreign rulers who controlled their land and administered their own flavor of criminal and civil justice. Killing the person was the ULTIMATE form of 'cutting off' from the community, but shunning had to do in a pinch.)
In an attempt to force abandonment of the cruel practice of shunning, we've seen countless impassioned pleas from ex-JW members who point out how cruel and emotionally-painful it is for THEM, the targets of shunning. Although these painful accounts are absolutely heart-felt, they often are quite ineffective; the shunning continues, partly because the cries paradoxically CONFIRM the message that the WT delivers to their members, telling them shunning HAS to be uncomfortable for the shunned since it's done "for their own good"! The Society claims that shunning WON'T be effective UNLESS it causes pain in the shunned!
If you haven't heard the most example, such claims were made to members Worldwide during the recent 2013 District Convention:
Hence the WT's justification is seemingly confirmed, and their message likely soothes the panged guilty consciences of those members who shun as they're told (although it's hard to imagine that they don't intuitively KNOW deep-down that it IS cruel to throw one's own "flesh and blood" under the bus to save their own skin, simply because the group orders them to do so).
But by complaining, the shunned are only reinforcing the message delivered by the JWs; the pleas serve to confirm pre-existing beliefs and wishful denials, and the 'confirmation bias' of JWs who shun becomes reinforced with each of the victim's protests.
Let's re-examine the artwork the WTBTS offers that depicts a family who is shunning their son:
Notice how the face of the shunned member walking out the door is NOT shown, whereas the faces of the anguished parents are featured in the foreground in exquisite detail. Before leaving, it's clear that the self-centered son made his Mother cry, and caused his Dad some emotional distress!
Is this focus on the pain of the JW parents an accident, or some oversight?
Hardly: they're showing the emotional anguish and turmoil that shunning causes NOT for the shunned, but for the JW members who are shunning! The WTBTS doesn't try to DENY the emotional pain caused for their members; they're actually FLAUNTING IT, BOLDLY PUTTING IT ON DISPLAY! Now, why would they want to do THAT?
The scene depicts the burden of being a JW, as if they're being tested by Satan (which fits quite nicely into the whole "We're always being persecuted by Satan, and are suffering torment for the sake of God" meme). Of course, these feelings are supposed to be internalized, to be suffered in silence, especially in front of the shunned (it's the old "never let them see you sweat" saying, where one is supposed to have a upper lip and suffer quietly for the glory of God).
Worse though, is how the WTBTS actually attempts to turn the tables on the situation, claiming that the shunned is a puppet of Satan, and is the CAUSE of THEIR mental anguish; the faithful family are cast as the VICTIMS, NOT as being the source of the problem!
Remember: who's shunning whom, again, exactly?
Is the family shunning the son, or is the son shunning the family?
Notice the denial, the inability to "own up" to the pain one causes to other.
(Remember that thought: I'll be revisiting that theme later in the article, when discussing the importance of owning up to the harm we cause others, even if only passively, by one's FAILURE to say, "THIS practice IS WRONG!".)
Therefore, the shunning issue is a extremely tough nut to crack, since the fact is, the WTBTS simply has much more experience at manipulating their members, and they're simply smarter than many ex-members who don't understand the dynamics at play; the WT tactics reflect their deep understanding of social psychology and human nature, and they UNDERSTAND social control techniques, where many ex-members are still playing their game and reinforcing their message.
That makes sense, since JWs are notoriously biased against higher education, and members are actively DISCOURAGED from learning subjects covered in "Intro to Human Psychology 101", knowing they'll likely learn about methods of social control that are presented in such courses (of course, people who are unaware of such techniques are much easier to control).
So the JWs actually ARE telling the truth when they say shunning MUST be uncomfortable for the shunned, as that's the WHOLE POINT of social ostracism: it's used precisely because the individual's behavior was deemed unacceptable by an influential member of the group, and the power of the group is used to control the individual's behavior to reduce the odds of recidivism (repeating the 'offensive' behavior). So while shunning IS uncomfortable for the target and inflicts emotional and mental pain, it's pointless to waste one's breath expressing the pain: it's telling them what they already know, and it actually VERIFIES the punishment is working, and VALIDATES that they're on the right track! Hence such anguished pleas are extremely unlikely to be effective in leading to cessation of shunning; it's playing into the JW agenda, and reinforcing the behavior.
Clearly then, a completely different approach is needed to counter shunning.
A basic premise of human psychology (which is used in the World of advertising) is that you cannot expect others to change THEIR behavior if you're not able to offer sufficient reason as to WHY it would be in THEIR best interests to CHANGE. That's basic human nature: most humans, as high-minded as they may think themselves to be, tend towards being self-centered, narcissistic, and intrinsically conservative (i.e. resistant to change behaviors), so any attempts to change behaviors MUST dangle the "carrot" of what personal benefit such a change provides them, explaining "what's in it for me (them)". So we'd need to explain how NOT SHUNNING will personally benefit THEM.
However, in the case of JW shunning, the explanation as to why they need to continue to shun is obvious: members MUST shun when directed in order to not be shunned themselves! ALL JWs know this: it's openly explained in the Watchtower article referenced above, and if individuals refuse to go along with the policy, then good discipline and order is broken down, and the entire power structure of the organization is threatened. Members MUST 'go along to get along'.
The same principle applies to ANY organization that has to maintain control over the actions of individuals, eg in the military the process is called "maintaining good military order and discipline via the chain of command", etc. Corporate organizations rely on the same processes by virtue of performance reviews, firing, etc.
So the KEY to breaking such control techniques in the face of threats of backlash is by appealing to the member's self-interest, focusing on the LOSS, the HARM, the significant EMOTIONAL TOLL exacted on those who sacrifice their personal morality by going with along with 'group-think', AKA mob-mentality. They need to understand the HARM experienced by themselves, the LOSS of THEIR individual identity. They are exactly what the Psalmist describes as the wicked ones who are as "the chaff which blows with the wind", going along as told.
The ones who mindlessly go along with JW group-think in fact are VICTIMS as much as the person they are shunning, since it robs them of their personal sense of humanity, dignity, transforming them into a mindless member of a silent mob who is a dumb cog in the machine, only following orders.
Rephrased, instead of focusing on the perspective and harm experienced BY the SHUNNED, it would be more useful to focus the message on the HARM that shunning inflicts on the participants, the INDIVIDUALS who SHUN.
The WT requires individuals to subsume their inner sense of morality to accept the will of the group (in the name of God), engaging in "group think" practices which only reinforces the power of the group. "Practice makes perfect", so with each subsequent individual they shun, it only gets easier the next time; eventually shunning becomes a knee-jerk response that makes questioning the social construct increasingly difficult, since the arrangement becomes entrenched, making it more resistant from cognitive challenge (it becomes a habit, and is easily excused with, "that's just the way it's always been done" excuses).
You already know this concept, as JWs rely on the same principle when they refer to one's conscience getting worn down by repeated sinning, which makes it easier to commit: it's the same principle, except applied to shunning. As social psychologist Philip Zimbardo says, "the Milgram study shows that all evil begins with "ONLY" 12V (the voltage of a harmless battery, the level inflicted by the first punishment shock delivered)."
The practice of blindly following the commands of a leader/authority figure was studied by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 in his famous study. Dr Milgram was a Jew who was interested in studying how seemingly ordinary God-fearing people could engage in genocidal atrocities: he found the answer.
The YouTube video below depicts a recreation of Dr. Milgram's study which was reproduced in the UK.
Ask you watch, simply replace:
* Milgram's 'authority of a scientist' with the JW's 'authority of the elders and members of the congregation' (the latter element adds 'peer pressure' and 'diffusion of responsibility' into the mix),
* Milgram's 'delivering electrical shocks as punishment' with the JW's 'delivering emotional shocks of shunning as punishment',
and you've got the exact same social dynamic in action, the JW's adaptation of Milgram's classic study.
For JWs, the ante is upped not only by use of 'peer pressure' and 'diffusion of responsibility', but by the muted threat of being the next victim if they DON'T comply: the Milgram subject who administered electrical shocks would not only be verbally-coerced to continue until the study concluded (i.e. to see if they would deliver the full 450V to a non-responsive subject), the subject would have to be threatened with electrodes being attached to THEM if they failed to administer shocks to others!
Even worse, JWs perceive they face the risk of being killed by Jehovah in Armageddon for failing to shun others! So unlike Dr Milgram's study (where the 'authority figure' was a scientist wearing a lab coat), JW's see the authority figure as Jehovah God, and the appeal is the biggest one out there, an "appeal to the Divine Authority"! For a believer, you can see how particularly insidious and effective that level of behavior-control can be, and how tough the nut is to crack!
Those additional factors only increases the depth of control, and it's no surprise that the rate of those who refuse to shun is lower than those in Milgram's study who refused to deliver the lethal shocks.
So, if KNOWING the lessons from the work of Milgram isn't persuasive enough to convince JWs that they're being manipulated by the Governing Body, then a valuable addition to the armamentarium based on Dr Milgram's study is found by focusing on the debriefing session (shown at the end of the video).
After being TOLD that they were the subjects in an experiment on social control, the subjects offer their excuses for WHY they continued to follow orders even after they crossed the lethal threshold (notice that 75% of the subjects went to the lethal 450V, buckling under the pressure applied by the calm authoritarian figure). In hindsight, many subjects recognized their justification withered away; even though they KNEW they might've injured or KILLED someone, they told themselves they didn't. In retrospect, they had no choice but to re-examine the reasoning they used, and had to see it for what it was: rationalizations that don't withstand scrutiny under the harsh light of day. They were in essence delivered the shock of being forced to deal with their cognitive dissonance.
As an ex-member of the JWs who was DF/DA/shunned as an apostate, you are in a quite unique position, since for you, the JW adaptation of Milgram's social experiment is concluded: unless you were disfellowshipped for YOUR 'failure to shun', if you EVER shunned anyone while in, then you 'failed' the test. Join the club: it's ranks are LARGE.
Obviously, that's going to require facing up to YOUR past malleability and culpability in the scheme, and that will be a painful insight for many (it's also something you'll have to face up to sooner or later, so there's no time like the present, right?).
See, the thing is that before you can stand up AGAINST shunning, you'll need to face up to the REAL harm and emotional damage you've caused OTHERS (if you haven't already done so); you need to "own" your personal responsibility for having played a role in the system that has harmed so many. "I was just following orders" didn't fly as a defense at the Nuremberg war crimes trials for Nazi guards, and it doesn't fly for having used your "JW Shun Gun" against others.
I know, that's likely going to be difficult (to impossible) for many, since I've heard it before: YOU were the 'special' one who didn't shun, the exception to the rule. You likely won't admit that YOU ever shunned anyone, since you're the type of person to blame the "other guys" (eg the Governing Body, the Elders, etc) for the problem of shunning: not YOU, since YOU are PERFECT. So stick to that little lie if you'd like, but I don't believe it for a minute: if you were IN and you really believed in JW doctrines, then the odds are great that you shared the same attitude as every other JW did, and you ALLOWED yourself to act as a member of a mob: you share the burden.
The first step of fixing a problem is admitting that you HAVE a problem, and in this case, that you WERE a part of the problem.
The silver lining is that YOU actually have a unique perspective, valuable first-hand experience that may help others to grow, since YOU are now in the position to relate YOUR personal account of having shunned others by falling victim to group-think, and NOW can stand up against the practice by relaying how you felt when doing it, and how you knew deep-down that it was fundamentally wrong, but you did it, anyway (using whatever justification you may have used. The variations on that justification theme are varied, and I'm sure some of you used many creative thoughts to explain away your part in the problem).
The choice is yours: you can remain a victim who blames everyone else for problems, if you like: paradoxically, that plays right into the GB's game plan, as well, since they're banking that you're egotistical enough to not be able to do that, and hence will only stick to ineffective whining. You'd better believe that the WTBTS fully understands that your reluctance to admit playing a role in the shunning problem will effectively keep you under their power and control, since you will be unable to use an approach that's needed to mount an ethical stance against shunning, being able to say, "You know what? I once shunned others, and even though I suppressed my personal doubts, deep down I KNEW it was WRONG THEN, and I know it is wrong NOW!"
Remember, there are amoral sociopaths who can act only out of self-interest, and refuse to take the blame for the hurt they cause others, being completely immune from feeling any guilt for their role. Stay in their ranks, if you wish.
Point being, SHARING your inner-most thoughts and feelings of guilt you may have experienced in the past (or even currently are experiencing, if you have a late-onset guilt over the harm you caused others!) would be far more persuasive to anyone who's still inside, but is lurking; denial, delusions, etc are tough defense-mechanisms to break through, being quite resilient to shattering. You can play a role in helping others to revive their atrophied inner moral sense of fundamental right and wrong.
That's why I'm asking readers to reflect back on specific situations of where they shunned others, and publicly share those experiences, offering how it made you feel. I'm going to start a thread called "Shunning Confessionals" on Jehovahs-witness.net, and see who has the moral courage and integrity to own up to their past harm they've caused, and offer all participants to take a REAL STAND against shunning.
Oh, PS Thanks to JWN user 'Partisan', who picked up on the theme immediately after I pitched the idea in a thread, and shared the following sentiments to get the ball rolling (my personal shunning confession follows the words of Partisan):
Something really bothered me all day and all last night about this horrific talk, besides even the disgusting message it presented in itself. And that was the feeling I got when I reflected back on how I felt about the disfellowshipping arrangement back when I was in captivity. Being raised in this indoctrination, I accepted the arrangement of excommunication out of ignorance. Yet deep down, I didn't like it. It felt wrong, but since I knew no better, like so many Jehovahs Witnesses, I simply chalked it up to "oh well, it's Jehovah's will....", sadly shook my head and went back to my own self-interests.
But this no good con artist Steven Bell has testicles the size of Jupiter's moons to then proceed to "comfort" JWs by claiming that this is something that a disfellowshipped person brought on themselves. By his logic, active shunning of an individual incurs positively ZERO responsiblity by the shunner.
And this is the part that really bothers me. Ashamedly, I participated in this vile practice of shunning, as ordered by my JW "superiors". I mistakenly felt at that time that it was the "sinner" who was getting their punishment. And with a smug sense of satisfaction and "spiritual superiority" I shunned and coldly-treated people who I had no right to treat that way.
BUT LET ME MAKE ONE THING CRYSTAL CLEAR, MR. BELL......
AT NO TIME EVER WHEN I ACTIVELY SHUNNED SOMEONE DID I FEEL THAT THE DISFELLOWSHIPPED INDIVIDUAL WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR MY SHUNNING THEM. I KNEW DAMN WELL WHAT I WAS DOING. I WAS DOING JEHOVAH'S "WILL". SHUNNING IS A DIRECT ACTION THAT THE SHUNNER INFLICTS UPON THE SHUNNED.
Damn you, Mr. Bell.
And that's exactly the kind of testimony we need to see more of, the confessions of those who are willing to take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for having shunned others as MEMBERS of JWs out of their OWN self-interests, but now clearly admit how immoral it was to sacrifice their "loved" ones (or even those they weren't even close to) by allowing that decision to be made for them, via "group-think". That is the way to break the power of authority figures.
THAT perspective and important message is more effective than focusing on the hurt feelings of the ones being shunned, as if pleading to be accepted, since that plays right into the WT's message of how members need to stay firm to encourage the DF person to repent and seek reinstatement. It plays right into their agenda.
So in that light, here's my confession:
As a self-centered and narcissistic young teen who wasn't even baptized, I definitely used the DF status of my own Mother against her, even once telling her when she tried to give me advice, "What the hell do you know? Look at you, someone who was DFed, trying to tell me what I should do based on the Bible!".
Her pained expression showed I ABSOLUTELY had kicked her in the gut and crushed her spirits, when she was already down and out after having been repeatedly crushed by others. Even I, her own flesh and blood, used her DFed status against her as a weapon.
Later, when I was older, I looked back and realized how it was completely and utterly WRONG to not support my own Mom; if I could, I'd apologize to her (unfortunately she died a long time ago, before I could apologize to her for throwing her under the bus like that, for trusting the judgment of strangers outside of the family, rather than respecting the very woman who gave me life and taught me so much, even encouraging the development of my intellectual skills which allowed me to become what I am today).
I'm not one to carry regrets around, but that's definitely one I've had to deal with, and likely will carry as a burden to my grave. :(
The silver lining was that her situation motivated me to learn how groups like the JWs operate and exploit others; as part of my college work (undergrad and doctorate level), I learned about the psychological techniques the WTBTS uses to control the behavior of their members, and will try to educate those still in (and out) to "break the vicious cycle" as a form of atonement for that act against my own Mother.