Trust in Corruption: An Integrative Epidemic
“Human behavior is incredibly pliable, plastic.” -Philip Zimbardo
What is the essence of humanity? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a higher power? One might think, with the volume and frequency of these questions, that the human condition is habitual pondering. And while these questions serve a legitimate purpose to some, for the preponderance, they merely occur to entertain and distract from the inevitable sinful chaos of existence. What do we value? Love, faith, kindness, principle. The optimist among us will maintain that every one of us is virtuous in unique ways. The pessimist will argue none of us are. The realist, lacking in these cataracts of absolutes, will see unobstructed that, in the pursuit of a virtuous life in the Eyes of Others, we will be drawn to sin as soon as They flit away, like a moth drawn to a flame before withering to black ash.
In 1971, Professor of Psychology Philip Zimbardo conducted the groundbreaking Stanford Prison Experiment, during which twenty four student volunteers were selected at random, half to serve as mock prisoners, half as prison guards. As the experiment progressed, violence among the guards began to spread. As the cruelty manifested like mold under the chin of a forgotten doll retired to the basement, Zimbardo’s morbid fascination with the human capacity for evil flourished. He refused to intervene, and the experiment’s focus shifted from the psychological effects of perceived power to the evolution of evil when unimpeded by authority. After the experiment was forced to end after only six days due to the prisoners’ extreme psychological degeneracy, Zimbardo theorized the Lucifer Effect: a conglomeration of “30 years of research on factors that can create a ‘perfect storm’ which leads good people to engage in evil actions.” (Zimbardo, thelucifereffect.com)
This concept has been applied to numerous illustrations of corruption of power and sin, most commonly physically sadistic acts such as Nazi medical experimentation and the torture conducted at Abu Ghraib prison. But these extreme examples are oftentimes lost on the average population, who experience a lesser, but still prevalent, form of corruption every day. Exempli gratia, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. So how did the housing bubble pop? Credit rating agencies, the broken backbone of the recession, began compiling thousands of subprime mortgages into collateralized debt obligations (a monster all its own), which, once filled with enough of these mortgages, were considered diversified and given the coveted triple-A rating reserved only for the safest securities. In short, this cherished rating was stamped onto undue mortgages because it earned these venal agencies billions of dollars. And, when these securities finally failed, it was the citizen, the prisoner, who lost their home, job, and savings due to the greed and fraudulence of the prison guard.
Thus, the human condition. We are all prisoners until we claw our way to the other side of the bars, where our bloody fingers carry out the same deeds that once plagued us, forever trapped in a cyclical bastille of virtue and sin. We value trust, we trust in authority. But how can we continue to accommodate this trust when it is constantly perverted and abused by those it serves? We carry our guillotine on our backs to our executioner, blinded by our inordinate faith. Once we emancipate ourselves of virtue and accept that we all furtively cling to the idea of sin like a sick pup to its mother’s teat, we will be free to accept the human condition: that we are all, in our hearts, but a moth.