Notes from the author:
I wrote this analysis of "The Monsters are Due in Maple Street" early in 1996 for a social psychology seminar I was attending at the time. Until rediscovering it several weeks ago I had basically forgotten all about it. As proof of its date, I can refer to the Italian E-Zine Dada, which published it in their March-April 1996 Edition. Although parts of the analysis are rather technical, American Views Abroad has agreed to present it here as is, to preserve the authenticity, and because the important thing is the message Rod Serling had for us. I hope that the ideas discussed here help to put the events following 9/11 into perspective and to innoculate all of us against any future panic in situations we cannot now foresee.
Fred Roberts, April 2004
Good and Bad Leaders: an example from American Television
This paper will attempt to establish a profile of the good vs. the bad leader, including the socio-cultural conditions behind the leadership process. These points will be illustrated using an insightful example provided by late 1950's television in America.
A theory put forth by Robert Wicklund (in press) describes a continuum of perspectives which influence behavior. The two poles are multiple and orienting perspectives. People with multiple perspectives consider all aspects of a situation, including the perspectives of others. They recognize that there is not one black and white answer to a particular problem, rather many different ways of looking at it. In other words, a tolerance of ambiguities or consideration of the social surrounding. An orienting perspective, on the other hand, sees only one absolute response to a situation and does not recognize other alternatives or viewpoints. This perspective reacts to a situation as being unambiguous and works towards a specific goal. A primary factor influencing the choice of perspectives is threat. Threat refers usually to a feature of the actual physical or biological environment, but can also be imagined.
These thoughts can be seen as an extension of the body of research and definition on authoritarianism. There a connection has been made between threat in the environment (political or economical) and the rise of authoritarianism, especially the selection or acceptance of an authoritarian leader.
Adorno, et al (1950) categorized several main aspects of authoritarianism. Authoritarians admire power and strength. They are cynical and contemptuous towards others. They are ready to accept unscientific or superstitious explanations of events. Submission to the in-group (intolerance towards deviations from the norm) is another important aspect as is aggression towards those who deviate.
Sales (1973) operationalized these aspects in the form of economic and social indicators in America and found positive correlations between amount of threat in the environment and the authoritarian trends. In this case the 1920's were seen as a relatively non-threatening period while the 1930's were categorized as relatively threatening. This was replicated in a second study comparing the early 1960's (non-threatening) to the late 1960's (threatening).
McCann and Stewin (1984) found a positive connection between threat as measured by economic indicators and the selection of authoritarian leaders. The inaugural addresses of American presidents from 1924 through 1980 were examined for authoritarian content. Jorgenson (1975) found a similar parallel between threat indicators and authoritarian content of television programs during the period in America from 1950 through 1974. Padget and Jorgenson (1982) discovered a positive link between superstition and the amount of threat present in Germany during the years 1918 through 1940. They define superstition as irrational beliefs based on fear or ignorance and operationalized it in terms of publications reflecting these beliefs.
In a study focusing on authoritarian attitudes towards high achievers Feather (1993) found that authoritarians with a low self-esteem tended to favor a fall of such achievers (tall poppies) whereas the authoritarians having a high self-esteem approved of the achievers. A second study linked authoritarianism with right-wing voting behavior.
Before answering the questions "What characterizes a good leader?" and "What characterizes a bad leader?", the following consideration must be made. The logical conclusion is to say that orienting or authoritarian leaders are always bad and that non-authoritarians i.e. those having multiple perspectives are always good. The authoritarian theories and the multiple vs. orienting perspectives theory make no explicit qualitative judgement of these two spectrums, though implying that the multiple perspectives pole is usually to be desired. The question "is a leader good or bad?" would not necessarily match the question "is a leader effective or not?". An orienting response in times of crisis may have a valid survival function whereas multiple perspectives could hinder necessary action. To say that orienting is always wrong would be in itself an orienting response.
In light of this, it appears to me that a distinction should be made. There are two types of realities: physical realities and social realities. They have been defined as a spectrum and have been extensively studied by social psychologists in connection with group pressure and conformity. Physical realities can be experienced directly through the senses: i.e. the length or size of something, or to use Wicklund's example, the physiological indicators of when one has eaten enough. A multiple perspectives approach to physical realities can have negative consequences: if I am building or designing something, I have to orient to physical qualities, otherwise the pieces won't fit together. A multiple perspectives approach to eating (ignoring the physiological signals that one has had enough) can lead to obesity. Social realities, however, can not be tested reliably by the senses. Here an orienting approach can have negative consequences (hurting an innocent victim) while multiple perspectives take into account the ambiguity of the social reality. Perhaps a good leader is one who knows when to orient.
For the sake of this paper a good leader will be defined as one who in ambiguous situations retains multiple perspectives, a bad leader is orienting. The orienting responses take the forms described by Adorno (cynicism, aggression, submission to authority, etc.). Good leaders have a better chance of flourishing in times of non-threat, i.e. times of prosperity, full employment and safety. During times of actual or perceived threat the masses demand an orienting leader. They want answers and they want action regardless of whether or not the answers and action are rational. It is an almost superstitious way of dealing with the threat. This may be illustrated by the following example: If I am healthy I am satisfied with my physician. I have no interest in non-scientific medical treatments: laying of hands or the practices of quack physicians. But if I develop a chronic illness against which my physician can do nothing, this is a threat. Suddenly I am willing to go to anyone who can promise results and I will lower my opinion of my own doctor, especially if he or she correctly ridicules the treatments I am interested in. This is analog to political and economical threat. During times of high unemployment or times of war the people demand a leader willing to do something, no matter if the ensuing action is irrational.
Unfortunately, history has delivered too many examples of orienting and the rise of authoritarian leaders during times of threat. The most obvious example would be Germany during its turbulent period in 1932 and 1933. McCarthyism could prevail in America during the early 1950's, despite the voices against it, because of the hysterical fear of communism. A lesser known example is described by John Hersey (1988): the situation of Americans of Japanese descent following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. This was a period of high threat. An invasion was feared, as well as sabotage from Americans whose appearance was oriental. There was, incidentally, no actual evidence of such criminal activity by this group, but a well-established history of prejudice against them. The military commander in charge of the west coast, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, a bad leader in the definition of this paper, led an unfounded campaign against the Japanese-Americans and succeeded, despite the intervention of sane voices in high places, in having these Americans rounded up and placed in concentration camps further east. In general, the threat creates a situation in which something has to be done, action is demanded. Anyone who acts, regardless of how senselessly, will be accepted as a leader.
During the late 1950's and early 1960's a popular series written by Rod Serling known as "The Twilight Zone" was broadcast on American television. The series presented fantastic and subtle horror stories. One classic episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street", dramatized a situation which can be seen as allegoric to the general situation of a good leader losing control during times of threat and being replaced by a bad leader who offers the orienting solutions demanded by the threatened group.
The story takes place on a typical street which could be anywhere in America or the world. The key figures are Steve and Charlie. Steve is a good leader, respected by his neighbors, someone they look up to and look to for answers, and his answers are always reasonable, a tall poppy. Charlie, on the other hand, does not enjoy this status. But then the street is thrown into an ambiguous threat situation. The power goes out, the telephones and all motors cease to function. The threat becomes magnified as a little boy offers the explanation: aliens from another planet are responsible and what's more, they've planted a family among us to help them take over. Charlie picks up on this orienting explanation and leads the group in the search for the alien family. Steve remains rational, but has lost his support. The group is threatened and it listens to the leader who offers the easiest answers. Here now will follow a summary and analysis of key statements and situations in "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street".
The program begins with a scene of non-threat: an ice cream vendor, children laughing and playing, neighbors washing and repairing their cars, watering the lawn, etc. It's a late summer afternoon. Then a "meteor" passes over the street and the power, including motors and telephones, goes off.
The neighbors congregate. Steve is puzzled, Charlie is nervous. They decide to go downtown to check on the situation. The child offers the explanation of aliens coming and having planted a family in the street. Steve ridicules this. Charlie listens and a threat begins to be perceived by the other neighbors who appear all very unsure of the situation. They are waiting for an answer.
Suddenly, one of the neighbor's (Les’) car starts by itself. We hear a series of statements from the other neighbors demonstrating the shift of perspectives: "His car started somehow", "How come his car started like that?", "He never did come out to look at that thing that flew overhead. He wasn't even interested." Charlie: "He always was an oddball." Another neighbor: "Why didn't he come out with the rest of us to look?" Charlie decisively: "What'd'ya say we go ask him!" Charlie is in the forefront as the neighbors almost stampede over to Les. Steve: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Let's not be a mob!", tries to stop the orienting.
This is a key scene which shows the switch from multiple perspectives to orienting. The use of labels, in this case "oddball", is indicative of an orienting, black-white way of thinking. Charlie offers a solution, to question Les. The group members’ focus of attention is no longer on themselves, rather on extraneous factors. They become a mob.
Les: "You all know me, we've lived here for five years...We aren't any different from you." Lady to Les: "If that's the case, explain why-" Steve tries to interrupt. Charlie wants to hear it. She's seen Les in the early morning hours looking up at the sky, as if waiting for something. It's simply a case of Les having insomnia and walking out on the porch. One can see here the embodiment of Adorno's idea of authoritarian aggression. The in-group is ready to move against someone who does not fit their norm. This idea recurs throughout the entire story.
Charlie's wife: "It just doesn't seem right, keeping watch on them. Why, they're our neighbors. We've known them ever since they came here. We've been good friends." Charlie: "That don't prove a thing. Any guy who'd spend his time looking up at the sky early in the morning, there's something wrong with that kind of a person, something that ain't legitimate. Under normal circumstances we'd let it go by, but these aren't normal circumstances. Look at that street: nothing but candles. It's like going back into the dark ages."
Charlie, as the authoritarian leader, describes in a few sentences Adorno's concepts of authoritarian submission and aggression. Deviation from the norm cannot be accepted. Other nuances are contained here, as well. The statement about the dark ages makes a very ironic observation. It is the sacrificing of multiple perspectives itself which has thrown them into the dark ages. The finishing touch is the ungrammatical way in which Charlie speaks, thus symbolically demonstrating his ignorance.
Steve talks to Les and his wife. Les' wife: "Why this whole thing is some kind of madness." Steve: "That's exactly what it is, some kind of madness." Charlie to Steve: "You'd best watch who you're seen with, Steve. Till we get this all straightened out you ain't exactly above 'spicion yourself!" Here we see a repetition of the concept of authoritarian submission.
One neighbor: "What I want to know is what are we going to do?" This key question shows the inherent pressure to do something in a threat situation, a question apparently on the minds of all the neighbors. Steve then questions Charlie's authority: "There's something you can do Charlie. You can go inside and keep your mouth shut!" Charlie: "You seem pretty anxious to have that happen Steve. I guess we ought to keep an eye on you, too." Another of the neighbors follows Charlie: "I think everything might as well come out now. Your wife's been doing a little talking, Steve, about some of the odd things you've been doing." And so Steve becomes a victim of the authoritarian aggression, as his assembling a ham radio in his basement is made suspect.
Steve answers: "Let's get it all out. Let's pick out every idiosyncrasy of every man, woman and child on this whole street," and says later, "You're all standing out here all set to crucify somebody. You're all set to find a scapegoat. You're all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor. Well, believe me friends, the only thing that's going to happen is that we're going to eat each other up alive!" This sums up quite eloquently what threat can do. Through an adherence to arbitrary norms it brings to life a destructive intolerance.
The neighbors seem to listen to Steve, but then someone approaches. Charlie panics and grabs a gun. Steve tries to stop him but Charlie shoots, killing one of the neighbors who had gone to the next block to see if everything was all right there. Charlie: "I was only trying to protect my home." Then the orienting responses are out of control as the electricity switches on and off selectively. Steve tries to keep control to the end: "What's the matter with you people, now stop!" as the neighbors run amok destroying each other.
In the end we are shown two aliens on a hill overlooking the street and learn what it's all about: "Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines...throw them into darkness for a few hours and then sit back and watch the pattern... They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it's themselves." Unfortunately, this observation is all too accurate.
As shown by the example of "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" and by countless real situations, orienting ideas and bad leaders will flourish during times of threat. Good leaders and multiple perspectives have their best chance in the absence of threat. This is the thinking of main theories having to do with authoritarianism and the overview describing multiple vs. orienting perspectives.
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., & Stanford, R.N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
Feather, N.T. (1993). Authoritarianism and attitude toward high achievers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 152-164.
Hersey, J. (1988). A mistake of terrifically horrible proportions. in J. Armor & P. Wright (eds.), Manzanar. London: Martin Secker & Warburg.
Jorgenson, D.O. (1975). Economic threat and authoritarianism in television programs: 1950-1974. Psychological Reports, 37, 1153-1154.
McCann, S.J., & Stewin, L.L. (1987). Threat, authoritarianism, and the power of U.S. presidents. Journal of Psychology, 121, 149-157.
Padgett, V., & Jorgenson, D.O. (1982). Superstition and economic threat: Germany 1918-1940. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8, 736-741.
Sales, S.M. (1973). Threats as a factor in authoritarianism: An analysis of archival data. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 44-57.
Serling, R. (1960). The monsters are due on Maple street. Stories from the Twilight Zone, New York: Bantam Books.
Wicklund, R.A. (in press). Physical/biological orienting vs. multiple psychological perspectives.
"The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" ended with this epitaph by Rod Serling:
"The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices - to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children...the children yet unborn... And the pity of it is...that these things cannot be confined to...The Twilight Zone!"
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