The Impact of Power Essay Example

  • Category: Society, Sociology,
  • Words: 2428 Pages: 9
  • Published: 06 September 2020
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“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

-Abraham Lincoln

The word power is used universally. We categorize people in positions of authority as powerful because they possess the ability to influence masses and the outcomes of various events. However, the effects of power can be seen on a day-to-day basis as well. Within modern day society, we see many examples of kindhearted and generous people becoming self-obsessed tyrants when presented with power. In the film Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychologist by the name of Philip Zimbardo conducted a social experiment to investigate power dynamics in a prison simulation. Alternatively, In the novel Night, readers are given a firsthand account of the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust from survivor, Elie Wiesel. The film Stanford Prison Experiment and Elie Wiesel's Night both illustrate powers ability to influence the choices people make. Consequently, in both works, there is a powerful group abusing their authority, a group of powerless that comply with the directives of the powerful and bystanders that fail to act in the face of injustice. 

How Power Affects People

Primarily, in both works it is seen that when given a position of power there are drastic actions taken by the person in authority in order to control those around them and abuse their power. In particular, the film Stanford Prison Experiment had the prison guards as the powerful group. These guards started to abuse the power given to them by attempting to objectify the prisoners. An example of this is when the prisoners were assigned numbers. Each prisoner was given a number at the beginning of the experiment and from then on, that was their name. Further on in the experiment, the guards continued to instil the assigned number of each prisoner by forcing them to repeat their ‘name’ countless times.

The example provided demonstrates an abuse of power because the guards consciously committed this act of reducing a humans value to a number, knowing the negative impact it would have on the individual. An additional illustration of the guards abusing their power by objectifying the prisoners is when they began to target their overall identity. At the beginning of the film, the prisoners were forced to wear dresses and were often referred to as ‘ladies’. In the movie, it was stated that these actions were taken with the intent of depleting their masculinity.

The sole gesture of feminizing these men and forcing them to accept that treatment, is an abuse of power. Philip Zimbardo, the lead psychiatrist in the study said, ‘the line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” The ‘situational forces’ present in the prison simulation was power. Power was the force that caused these guards to cross the line between good and evil. 

Not one of the guards questioned why they were behaving with such disregard for the well-being of the other participants or outspokenly acknowledged that they were making the wrong choices. The guards were once a somewhat innocent group of university students but became coldhearted narcissist when they let their powerful standing in the prison hierarchy determine their decisions. Similarly in the book Night, the SS officers abused their power by objectifying the prisoners in the concentration camps. The political party the Nazis, which included SS officers and German authorities, were the powerful group in this novel.

As seen in Stanford Prison Experiment, the Jewish prisoners were also assigned numbers and their names no longer existed. (Night 42) This again shows an abuse of power because they took away the humanity of the individuals by objectifying them. By the same token, the powerful group in Night abused their power when they forced the prisoners to shave their heads and wear mismatched clothes. (Night 35) The Nazis no longer saw them as humans with emotions, morals and values. In their position of power, the Nazis objectified the prisoners as workers who just need the bare minimum to perform.

This relates to Stanford Prison Experiment in the way that the powerless group weren’t allowed to express their true identities. In Stanford Prison Experiment and Night the different aspects that made up the identities of the prisoners, such as appearance and gender, were targeted in order to objectify these distinct groups. Consequently, the distinction between both works is the moral behind the power of the people in authority. Take Stanford Prison Experiment as an example. It was intended to be a harmless experiment with university students as subjects.

They had no knowledge of the other people involved or even what role they were going to play in the study. All of the actions that took place during the experiment was a direct result of their position of power. However, in the novel Night, there was a factor playing a greater role behind the grand scheme of power. The overall hatred for the Jews is the main reason why the Germans fought to put themselves in a position of power.

Their pent up hate was the main drive and power allowed them to inflict that hatred on others. The effects of their actions are shown in this quote from Elie Wiesel. ‘From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.’ (Night 115) These groups of powerful people controlled the prisoners and changed them to the point where they couldn’t even recognize themselves. All in all, the impact of power on these individuals was negative because they used their dominance to objectify and control people. 

Powerless Groups

Generally, in both works the powerless group can be labelled as compliant because they cooperate with all the demands of their superiors without question. People like to say ‘if I were in this situation, I would do…’ Nevertheless, it can be seen through history that you can never dream of the things you do or the person you become until you are face-to-face with the fear and danger of actually being in that situation. In the movie, Stanford Prison Experiment the group of powerless people were the prisoners. A prime example of the prisoners being compliant was during mealtime.

Before starting the experiment, each volunteer had to sign a contract. One of the points detailed in that contract is that the prisoners were allowed to smoke after mealtime. In spite of the contract, when one of the prisoners asked to smoke they were denied permission and taunted by the guards. Rather than standing up for himself or asking to speak to higher authority, the prisoner in question was obedient. This represents compliance because the prisoner knew what was happening was wrong, but allowed it to happen anyways. One of the guards even said, “It really surprised me that nobody said anything to stop me.

Nobody questioned my authority at all.” In addition, their compliance was shown when the guards broke the contract a second time. It was outlined in the contract that physical assault was prohibited, but when the prisoners became too much to handle, the guards resulted in violence. Once again, the prisoners did nothing to speak out against the assault or report the breach of contract. Moreover,  the compliance of the powerless group can also be seen through the prisoners in the novel Night. An example of this is at the beginning of the book when the selection process was underway.

The SS officers carried the Jewish out of their hometown, into concentration camps and demanded that they separate by gender. (Night 29) There wasn’t a question of authority or why they were being told to separate, the prisoners just did as they were told. Families were broken apart and they were distraught, but this still wasn't enough for them to show anything but submissiveness. Similar to the prisoners in Stanford Prison Experiment, the prisoners in Night endured abuse as well. Elie Wiesel had accidentally walked in on one of the SS officers sleeping with a young Polish girl and was punished with twenty-five whips (Night 58).

Wiesel didn’t try to escape the beating or cry out to the other prisoners who stood by and watched every whip. This incident proves how compliant and co-operative the prisoners were with the directives of the powerful. The contrast between these two works is the actions that were taken after the horrid intentions of the powerful was revelled. In Night, the SS officers put the prisoners through so much pain and suffering that they end up being even more obedient.

This can be seen when they were forced to run twenty miles in the snow. (Night 86) The prisoners were frightened into obedience and some ran until their body couldn’t take it anymore. After enduring months of suffering and familiarizing themselves with the cruel ways of the German they became obedient. On the contrary, in Stanford Prison Experiment when the guards start to become more aggressive the prisoners fight back. After tolerating the harsh treatment of the guards, the inmates of one cell devised a plan of revolution. They piled all the furniture in their cells against the door to prevent the guards of getting inside.

This act showcases their rebellion against the guards and the way they were treating them. Generally speaking, when there are others above you that have greater capabilities, people tend to shy away in the face of power. Elie Wiesel said “was there a single place here where you were not in danger of death?” (Night 37) There was always a repercussion to fear when the prisoners even thought of being disobedient and that fear is what made the powerless submissive. Overall In both works, you can see how the lack of power impacted people and made them compliant to those in a higher position of authority.  

Comparing the Novel and the Film

Finally, the parallel between these two works are the bystanders that did nothing in the face of injustice. In the film Stanford Prison Experiment, the bystanders are the psychologist running the experiment which included Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues. The lack of action taken by the bystanders can be displayed through Philips response to events that take place during his ‘experiment’. When the guards start going against the very words stated in the contract, Zimbardo’s reaction is ‘let's see where this goes.’ Instead of stepping in and using his position to stop the injustice surrounding him, he stood by as a silent observer.

Moreover, a case in which Philip Zimbardo was a bystander was when he encouraged the behaviour of the powerful. The conditions of the prison simulation became so unreasonable that one volunteer begged for them to let him go home. Unlike any sensible person, Zimbardo didn’t take this as a sign that there was something wrong in his experiment. Alternatively, he used this as an opportunity to evoke fear in the other prisoners by telling them that they’re fellow inmate had been sent to a higher security prison. He chose to assist the guards by giving them stronger control over the prisoners, then helping the prisoners escape that bad situation.

The state at which this negligence brought the experiment to is outlined in this quote from one of the guards. “It's still a prison to me. You know I don’t look at it as an experiment or simulation at all. It was a prison run by a psychologist.” This guard didn’t see the simulation as the ‘experiment’ it was supposed to be, he viewed it as an actual prison. This represents that the bystanders allowed the conditions of the experiment to become so unfavourable that it started to resemble a real jail.

The way in which Phillip Zimbardo contributed to the problem instead of the solution is why he is a bystander. similarly, in the novel Night, there were bystanders that stood by and did nothing. The bystanders in the memoir were the rest of Germany that allowed the mass genocide of Jewish people to occur. A heartbreaking example of the bystanders in Night is when two young girls were flirting with the German officers. (Night 40) Just mere steps away from them were beaten and bruised prisoners in concentration camps, yet they paid no mind.

These girls were so neglectant, ignorant and conceited that they couldn’t even acknowledge, let alone stand up for, the people being held captive. Furthermore, the ignorance of bystanders is shown closer to the end of the book. The prisoners were being transported to a different camp location and as their train was passing through the city, the German citizen started throwing bread.(Night 100) The gesture wasn’t intended to be kind. They found entertainment in humans, just like them, being famished to the point where they would kill for food. There was no love or sympathy in them providing food for these hungry people, it was for their sole amusement. The way in which they used the prisoner's unimaginable situation for entertainment, instead of actually caring enough to help them is why they are bystanders.

Elie Wiesel one said, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.” If there is someone suffering, it is the role of the world to help that person out of that situation. The bystanders in Night failed to acknowledge that the prisoners were human too and their suffering would impact the lives of generations to come. Admittedly, the steps that were taken after the bystanders obtained a deeper understanding of the powerless people around them draws the contrast between Night and Stanford Prison Experiment. In the film, once Philip Zimbardo deems that the guards were taking things to far, he uses his power to shut the entire experiment down.

As a result, this becomes the point in which he was no longer a bystander. Comparatively, in Night the bystanders never used the power they had to put an end to the discrimination the Jewish were facing. They gave what little power they had to the people that were already powerful and ultimately contributed to the six million deaths in the Holocaust. Overall, the bystanders either didn’t do what they should have done at all or didn’t do it soon enough. In both works, the bystanders had power. They had the ability to voice their opinions and help the victims, but instead, they stood quiet and indirectly helped the powerful.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the film Stanford Prison Experiment and the novel Night both demonstrate the heavy influence power has on the decisions people make. The people in both works can be categorized into distinct groups based on their actions. The powerful that abuse their power, the compliant powerless group and the bystanders.The importance of this topic of power is important when we think about current issues in society.

There are people that change when given power and become totally different people than they were before. We have people in positions of authority creating laws and policies that aren’t in the interest of the majority. Elie Wiesel once said, “there may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” When looking at the power dynamic, the powerless and bystanders take up most of the triangle.

There is power in numbers. And that was the power the the groups in both works didn’t access. We need to regulate those in power by having the courage to voice our opinions, rely on those around us and rebel if necessary. Just as Elie Wiesel said, these must never be a time when we fail to speak out against someone's wrongdoings. All of their choices directly impacts us and we have to advocate for ourselves because no one else is going to do it for us.

 

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