Category Archives: Cruelty

The Sicilian Court Case

In February 2000 newspapers reported an astonishing hoax that took place on the island of Sicily. The ringleader of the hoax was an Italian judge. He decided to stage a fake court case with the sole purpose of having a laugh at a lawyer from the mainland. The date was fixed, the court proceedings announced, and a female prosecutor, Iolanda Apostolica was brought across from mainland Italy. Everybody was in on the joke, except for Ms Apostolica. The aim of the hoax was to spend the entire case laughing at her behind her back. To heighten her humiliation the judge assigned everyone involved in the case a name drawn from Sicilian slang. He was to be known as Judge Licazzi, the Defence lawyer as Mr Crastello and a court officer as Ms Sbardasciata. For those of you unfamiliar with Sicilian slang, Licazzi means testicles, Crastello means castrated and Sbardasciata means cretinous. So for the entire proceedings, as the prosecution lawyer argued what she thought was a genuine case, she was referring to his honour Mr Testicles, defence lawyer Mr Castrated and Court Officer Ms Cretinous.

The first the prosecution layer knew something was amiss was when a colleague flashed her a sign that said “They joke about you in court”. When she returned home she described her day to her boyfriend Claudio, who just happened to be a university tutor in Rome who knew Sicilian slang.

Once she had put two and two together you can imagine how Iolanda felt – embarrassed, shamed and humiliated. The next day her boyfriend Claudio showed up at court, walked up to the judge’s bench and spat the judge in the eye, then left a note that read “A joke from Claudio Moffa”.

You wouldn’t believe it but the judge brought real charges against Claudio. Claudio defended himself on the grounds that he was reclaiming his girlfriend’s honour. He lost and was given a suspended prison sentence. At the time the Sydney Morning Herald reported the judge was facing disciplinary proceedings.

Source: Incident reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 18/2/2000

The Milgrom Experiments

In 1961 a young assistant professor at Yale University conducted an experiment on obedience. The aim was to see how far ordinary citizens would comply with an order to inflict pain on another human being. Members of the public were recruited and the experiments began. Two participants were introduced to one another, with one asked to play the role of “teacher” and the other the role of “learner”. The learner, who was an actor hired by Professor Milgrom, was strapped into a chair wired to a generator. The person playing the role of teacher was told that the experiment would test the effect of punishment on learning. They were to ask a series of questions, and each time the learner gave the wrong answer, they were to punish him with a jolt of electricity. Starting with 15 volts the teacher was to increase the voltage for every mistake.

To Professor Milgrom’s astonishment over 60% of participants pushed the voltage past the warning level which read “Danger – Severe Shock”. All this while they heard the “victim” moaning, then screaming in pain. Psychologists had suggested only a small group of the population with psychopathic tendencies would go through to this level, yet here were over 60% of people drawn from the general population of New Haven acting in ways that we all believe are cruel.

What do the experiments prove? Social behaviour experts question whether they demonstrate people’s willingness to blindly obey authority. After all people routinely disobey authority when they defy their parents, speed in their car, or fail to do what school teachers ask. Lee Ross of Stanford University and his colleague Richard Nisbett believe the Milgrom experiments show how decisive is context for our behaviour. In order to disobey participants had to step out of the whole situation and deny the validity of the experiment to the experimenter. Ross and Nisbett suggest that people tend to do thing because of where they are, not who they are. In different circumstances people will act in a manner quite different to how they might act in another set of circumstances.

Source: reported in The Good Weekend magazine December 2, 2000