In 1966, a researcher (Gordon Stephenson) conducted an interesting experiment. He put 5 monkeys in a locked room. There wasn’t much in the room except a sort of ladder in the middle of it. At some point, he lowered a bunch of bananas within reach of the top of the ladder, and eventually, one of the monkeys noticed them and scampered up the ladder to grab them… as soon as the monkey touched the bananas, he (and all of the monkeys) were sprayed with cold water. This caused quite a frenzy, as you might imagine. Eventually, after they’d calmed down, another one of the monkeys decided to try his luck, ran up the ladder… and was met with the same fate. Cold shower for all of them. The disgruntled monkeys eventually learned that maybe it wasn’t worth it.
Then, one of the monkeys was removed, and a new one was placed in the room. And that monkey, as soon as he saw the bananas, made a move towards climbing towards them, but was quickly subdued by the other monkeys. He must have been confused, so he tried again, but again, was jumped by the others.
Then, another one of the monkeys was removed and a new one put in his place. As expected, the same thing happened. And, quite interestingly, the monkey that’d never even been sprayed joined in the ruckus, helping keep the new monkey away from the bananas.
And then this happened a few more times; a new monkey would be cycled in, and get beat up for trying to reach the bananas… by all of the others. Eventually, all of the monkeys that’d ever been sprayed had been replaced, but the behaviour continued. If you’re less than civilized, and just want to fit in… indeed, by virtue of needing to survive, you have to fit in… you just go with the crowd, even if you don’t understand the behaviour.
If monkeys could talk, and you’d ask them what’s going on… why aren’t you letting anyone reach those bananas… their answer might be, “That’s just the way it is”.
Apart from being a great song by Bruce Hornsby — a song that instantly comes into my head when I hear those words — those words, throughout history, have been used to “excuse” some pretty inexcusable behaviour. It’s not a far leap from there: “I was just following orders”.
Throughout my life, I’ve had a problem with those words, when things just don’t make sense. It’s a fallback for when someone doesn’t want to take responsibility, even if they know what they’re standing behind doesn’t make sense.
Off the top of my head, an example that I thought of when I was writing about Copiapó a couple of days ago… it sounds like the start of a joke, but here’s the question — how many people does it take to buy a box of band-aids in a pharmacy in Northern Chile? Here’s how it works….
You walk in, and go to the counter, where the pharmacist asks you what you want. Pretty much everything is over-the-counter, even things that around here you’d just grab. Interestingly, many things for which you’d need a prescription around here, like antibiotics, are also simply over-the-counter.
Anyway, he pulls out a box and shows it to you. You confirm it. But he doesn’t hand it to you. Instead, on a little piece of paper, he writes down “Bandaids 100 pesos”. You take that little piece of paper to the cashier, who is actually at the back of the store. While you’re going to the cashier, the actual box gets handed from the pharmacist to a runner, who makes his way over to an area called “packaging”, and hands it over. There, someone will wrap it up like a gift, with paper and tape. While it’s being wrapped, you pay for it, and the cashier will stamp your little piece of paper with “paid”. By then, the package (via runner) has made its way to the person near the front of the store, near the exit… in the area called “pick-up”. You show up with your “paid” receipt, they rip the corner off it and give you your wrapped package… and you’re on your way. Pharmacist, runner, wrapper, cashier, pick-up. It takes five people to sell you a box of band-aids. It’s ludicrous, infuriating and takes forever because inevitably, one of those stations is a choke-point. If the pharmacist is busy talking to someone, you wait… while the other people twiddle their thumbs waiting for something to do. Or someone is having problems paying… log-jam at the cashier.
But the one that really made me lose it once was when they jammed-up at the wrapping station, because someone was demanding separate packages for a number of things. There were people ahead of me, and my three items we back there somewhere, not getting any attention for a while. I tried to speak to someone, to tell them to just give me my toothpaste, soap and shampoo… but no, I’m sorry sir, it has to be wrapped. I don’t need it wrapped; just give it to me. Sorry sir, we can’t. Why not?! This is ridiculous!! “That’s just the way it is.” Aggghhhh.
Whenever we’re in a situation that’s new… unplanned… unforeseen… when people start making up their own rules — that’s when you start getting a lot of this. When people start behaving like uncivilized monkeys and falling back on the excuse that everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I… well, great example from around here was the Stanley Cup riot of 2011. That event made criminals out of a lot of people who otherwise probably wouldn’t be. And I’m not talking about the handful of actual criminals who got things going; I’m talking about the teenagers caught-up in it, simple Canucks fans suddenly seeing a smashed-in window to one of their favourite stores… wandering in and stealing something… because, well everyone else is doing it and I don’t need to understand it, right? As long as we’re all doing this together, it should be fine, right?
No — not right. I’m saying this today because of what society may look like for a while, with people choosing what suits them personally, and falling back on just shrugging their shoulders. We all paid for the aftermath of that riot, and we will all potentially pay for being a little too individual and self-serving. If there was ever a time to think a little more “big-picture” than usual, it’s now. Your actions may affect a lot more than just you. Let’s remember, we’re all aiming towards the same desired outcome… it’s much easier to get there together, right? That’s just the way it is.