How Self-Censorship is Instituted
December 7, 2011
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Picture 5 monkeys placed in a cage. A new community is formed. From the ceiling of the cage hangs a bunch of bananas. A stepladder is placed under the bananas. As the first eager monkey rushes up the ladder, a firehose knocks him off and hoses down all the monkeys. Shocked, they sit back and regroup. Later another monkey tries, with the same result. It make take repeated attempts by each monkey before they become conditioned (socialized really) to not climb the ladder.
At some point, the lesson has been learned by this closed culture and controls how they respond as a community. Then one monkey forgets and steps onto the ladder. But the firehose doesn’t have time to react. The other four monkeys grab the offender and beat him senseless. They’ve learned that in this society, you don’t climb the ladder.
Now the process of attrition and replacement in the society begins. One of the original monkeys is removed and a new monkey is added to the group. He spies the bananas and leaps onto the ladder, only to be dragged down and beaten by the rest of the group. After several attempts, the new monkey learns.
Another original monkey is replaced with a new monkey. And the same process follows. Then another and another and another. Soon we have a group of five monkeys who’ve never been soaked by the firehose, but won’t climb the ladder. This learned behavior was socialized into the group over time.
It no longer matters how many generations of monkeys follow. The new behavior is that a monkey climbing the ladder will be dragged off and beaten. None of the monkeys in the cage has ever been knocked off the ladder with a firehose. None have been soaked down. They don’t know what the consequence is because it’s been replaced by group behavior. They can’t remember being soaked. They don’t know why they do what they do. The accepted norm for this closed community is to beat anyone who tries to climb the ladder.