Books, Film, Rhetoric

Rats in a cage

Question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good?

The American psychologist B. F. Skinner believed that human behaviour was determined by environmental variables rather than free will, and that by systematically altering those variables human behaviour could be modified. In this way humans could be conditioned to display good, rather than bad, behaviour. He developed his theory of applied behavioural analysis from experiments he conducted in the 1930s on rats. He invented and constructed an enclosed soundproof cage with food dispenser that a rat could operate by pressing a lever, called a ‘Skinner box’. The rat learned that by pressing the lever a tasty pellet would be dropped to be eaten. The Skinner box could be fitted with an unpleasant electric current which, the rat learned, could be switched off by pressing the lever. Skinner’s conclusions included: (1) non-aversive stimulants increased certain behaviour; (2) aversive stimulants reduced certain behaviour; (3) the removal of aversive stimulants increased certain behaviour. From this, and other observations on pigeons, he concluded that free will in humans is weak (or non existent). Given the human world was in a bad way, and human society one of discord, criminality and juvenile delinquency, applied behavioural analysis could, he asserted, be used to reform criminals and create a more harmonious society. Humans, he asserted confidently, could be conditioned to be good for the benefit of society by the transfer of the behavioural modification observed in animals into the human domain.

Anthony Burgess found Skinner’s ideas morally repugnant. He wrote and published, in 1962, a novel in repost called A Clockwork Orange. It has a tripartite structure. In part one the fifteen year old narrator Alex Delarge and his friends are teenage delinquents on the rampage. They murder, rape and vandalise at will with a gleeful evil. They rip up books and stamp on dentures, take hallucinogenic drugs and indiscriminately wound and assault purely for a thrill. In the second part Alex (now called number 6055321) is sent to State Jail 84F after conviction for murder and, in return for a early release, agrees to take part in human conditioning and reclamation treatment called The Ludovico Technique. The Minister of the Interior is a Skinnerian behaviourist who is convinced that people such as Alex (and other violent prisoners) can be conditioned not to act in ways contrary to society’s norms. To allow his release and make free needed prison cells, and inferring that the cells are needed for political prisoners who are beyond cure, he arranges for Alex to be cured. Injected daily with an emetic and wheeled into a screening room and clamped in to a straight jacket, Alex has his eyes pinned wide open by a brace. He is forced to watch violent films whilst the drugs flowing in his blood make him feel extreme nausea. In the third part Alex is released. He is unable to be violent because he cannot cope with the associated nausea. But he is vulnerable, a sitting duck unable to fight back when his previous victims turn violent against him. One of the films shown to Alex during his treatment used Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack and he feels suicidally sick when he hears the music again. The aversion therapy has made him severely ill. To prove the Ludovico Technique unsound, F. Alexander, a writer of subversive literature who for political reasons wants to bring down the government, locks Alex in a room and plays Beethoven to him until he jumps from an upstairs window in a (failed) suicide attempt. Alex’s last line is “I was cured all right”.

For Burgess no one can be forced to be good. Moral conditioning brought about by brainwashing is no moral choice at all. A human being can be morally good only by choosing freely to be good, and the choice to be good is only available if evil is a possibility. Allowing for moral growth means also allowing for moral disintegration. Alex does not cease to do wrong though moral choice he ceases to do wrong because of fear of overpowering nausea. He has made no renunciation of violence. If he ceases to be a wrongdoer he also ceases to be capable of moral choice. For Burgess, enforced conditioning, however good the intention, with its de-humanising and phoney values is evil. The Ludovico Technique turns out to be a manipulative vehicle for Government control by a politician trying to cut recidivism for political ends. The problem of criminal violence is not capable, by scientific means, of being banished to the past. In 1987 Burgess produced a play version of the novel and in the preface he quotes The Winter’s Tale: “I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.” An orange is capable of growth, unless it is a wind up clockwork toy when it is nothing. No amount of transformation of an organic entity into a mechanism can achieve goodness. A Clockwork Orange is a magnificent protest, with its anti mechanistic spirit, against invasive mind control. Goodness must be chosen, and when a human ceases to choose they cease to be human.

In 1948 B. F. Skinner published a novel, Walden Two, that featured a utopian community established from the implementation of his ideas. Walden Two is a secluded rural community in America with about a thousand members. The inhabitants live in harmony because there has been behavioural engineering of the community’s members since birth. There are four sections of the society: planners, managers, workers and scientists. The scientists design each custom with an eye to every possible improvement by a stimulus-response model of humanity. Human behaviour is predicted and controlled and cultural practices are placed under the control of science and the planners. The conditioning at Walden includes: family ideology is altered to allow group care of children; children learn delayed gratification, when they reach the age of three they are given a lollipop and taught techniques to distract them from licking it; there is an abolishment of gossip; children are trained to avoid petty emotions. All this is such a success that no governing body is necessary as resolution of conflict is not needed in this friction-less utopia.

The novel has no plot but the dialogue carries the ideas. T. E. Frazier (an alter-ego for Skinner) shows Professor Burris (psychology), Dr Castle (philosophy) and five other visitors round the Walden community. Frazier is a man of barely repressed despotic tendencies: “The majority of people don’t want to plan. They want to be free of the responsibility of planning. What they ask is merely some assurance that they will be provided for”. Frazier: “I’ve had only one idea in my life—a true idée fixe. To put it as bluntly as possible—the idea of having my own way. ‘Control’ expresses it. The control of human behavior. In my early experimental days it was a frenzied, selfish desire to dominate. I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects of my experiments, ‘Behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!” Frazier, who is boastful and conceited, explains at great length that improvements to human behaviour, and to society, is possible. He congratulates himself on how enlightened he is with his scientific and panglossian ideas. At the end of the novel Professor Burris, who started his visit with traditional views about freedom, dignity and democracy, overcomes his scepticism and requests to join the Walden community.

This novel is a vehicle for promoting Skinner’s belief in behavioural engineering and the enforcement of a practical scientific approach to peacefully dealing with social problems. The inhabitants are well conditioned and rationally conceived and under firm control. They are not free but they feel free, which for Skinner is enough because humans are merely determined animals and free will an illusion. This was all part of Skinner’s life long professional campaign against free will. His view was that society could no longer afford freedom which must be replaced by control over human conduct. “We must delegate control of the population as a whole to specialists…with their specialised reinforcers and their codified contingencies” he wrote in 1971. Walden is a society that is a rigid, friction-less efficient sham. There is no exuberance, playfulness, fantasy, irony or creativity. This is utopia fit only for dehumanised, homogenised, pre-programmed robots, only for scientific control and arrested development. The fantasy of a technological path to utopia is a warning to humans to hang on to the freedoms that they have. When someone presents a blueprint for perfection run for the hills. The promise of human perfection is always built on acquiescence or the threat of throwing into a gulag anyone who insists on remaining unperfected.

Walden Two is no work of literature. Lengthy monologue is no model for a novel, the language is professorial, the plot non existent, the drama dull, the ideas didactically asserted. Walden, and the language in which the novel is articulated, is unfit for human consumption. The first thing that strikes the reader of A Clockwork Orange is the language. Burgess invented a patois, a futuristic slang for Alex and his droogs to speak. If Alex is vicious and amoral, he is also witty. Alex is the first person narrator and he insinuates himself with his readers “your friend and humble narrator”. He speaks of his grotesque crimes in an exuberant idiom, becoming a troublingly enticing anti-hero.

Then we sloshed the sirens and knew the millicents were coming with pooshkas pushing out of the police-auto-windows at the ready. That little weepy devotchka had told them, no doubt, there being a box for calling the rozzes not too far behind the Muni Power Plant. ‘Get you soon fear not,’ I called, ‘stinking billygoat. I’ll have your yarbles off lovely.’’ Then off they ran, slow and panting, except for Number One Leo out snoring on the ground away north towards the river, and we went the other way. Just round the next turning was an alley, dark and empty and open at both ends, and we rested there, panting fast then slower, then breathing like normal. It was like resting between the feet of two terrific and very enormous mountains, these being like flatlblocks, and in the windows of all the flats you could viddy like blue dancing light.

As with the poem Jabberwocky the meaning is only clear from context, a grasp of syntax and some etymological sleuthing. This Shakespearean, Joycean, rhyming slang, Russian-lite jargon is a strange tongue that Burgess called nadsat. The other characters in the novel (prison officers, doctors, politicians etc.) speak received pronunciation, standard English. It is Alex and his droogs who are the linguistic outsiders (a-lex: without, or outside the law). We have to learn, and retain, a small glossary as we read:

Droogs – friends
Yarbles – testicles
Devotchka – woman
Slovos – words
Nogas – legs
Rot- mouth
Zoobies – teeth
Charlie – Chaplain
Guttiwuts – stomach
Gulliver – head (from Swift)
Cancers – cigarettes
Gavoreerting – speaking
Sinny – cinema
God – bog
Millicents – police
Rabbit – work (from robot – forced labour)

Burgess valued language above all else. In his autobiography he wrote about his grandfather (called Wilson) who spoke a modified form of the Lancashire dialect:

“I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the medieval Wilsons …the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. D.H.Lawrence was bold enough to write verse in the Derbyshire dialect, which is not very different, but it was a rearguard action, not a revolutionary one. We take the extinction of the English dialects for granted, but I have lived long enough in Italy to know the power of the Roman and the Venetian. and to admire the pertinacity of the poets who continue to publish in them. They are lucky to have traditional orthography; we can only represent our dialects in deformed and inadequate versions of the standard language, which makes them automatically comic. Lancashire, like the others, is a victim of a centralising linguistic culture.”

Burgess had been fascinated by slang since his school and army days. His Shakespearean novel Nothing Like the Sun is steeped in Elizabethan slang. In May 2017 Burgess’s lost dictionary of slang, commissioned by Penguin in 1965, was discovered hidden in a Manchester archive. At least its surviving fragments were found, because it was too large a project (Samuel Johnson’s dictionary took many heroic years to finish) and Burgess only completed the As, Bs and Zs. The language of A Clockwork Orange is as much a repost to Skinner as the ideas.

If Walden Two was the utopian novel of 1948, the dystopian novel of 1948 (1984) was written by George Orwell and had a different use for rats in a cage. But it too had humans striving to control the behaviour and the language of other humans. There is something rotten in the values of the Ludovico Technique and Walden, and the language in which they are articulated. A Clockwork Orange is not generally regarded as a comic novel, but when confronted by evil comedy seeks not to correct it but to respond with bitter laughter. The ironic, playful argot of a murderer-rapist are harsher words to swallow that the professorial, reasonable, sober words in Walden Two, but anything less would be insufficient to rebut those who would sell liberty for a quiet life. Authoritarianism can defeat almost anything but it is powerless against irony. To the question: is it better for a human to choose to be bad than be conditioned to be good the answer is, unequivocally, yes.



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