Margaret Atwood describes a world in Handmaid's Tale that seems to be exaggerated to make a point, and not a realistic possibility. However, a closer look at the psychology behind such cultures reveals it is not as out of the question as we may presume.
A common misconception by people is their self-perceived immunity to manipulation. In 1961 Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram performed one of the most controversial, and interesting, experiments of the century. His experiment was run three months after the start of a Nazi war criminal, and was designed to determine how much the Nazi's were individually responsible for the horrors that they committed during the war. The basic set up of the experiment involved the subject being told they were studying the effects of punishment on thinking, and were told to shock another participant (really an actor), with increasingly higher voltages until a correct answer was produced. The experiment runner, who sat near the participant and served as the authority figure, proposed the questions. The voltage went as high as 450 volts, and long before that the actor would be yelling from the other room in pain and complaining of possible serious complications from heart problems. When Milgram polled his colleagues before the experiment, they believed that only the vilest people would go all the way (an average of 1.2%). The actual results were astounding, in that 65% of participants went to 450 volts, although many of them protested while they were doing so. The reason so many commited this seemingly horrid task was the influence of the experimenter in the room, who told repeated only four lines when the participants complained:
1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.
This experiment has been run many more times, with separate variables adjusted. The most critical variable by far has been shown to be the perceived presence an authority held by the experimenter urging them to go on. Although peer conformity has been shown to have a strong effect, for when it was run with a "dummy" teacher running the supposed same experiment next to the participant and the "dummy" went all the way with the experiment, only 3 of 40 subjects stopped before the end, meaning it is incredibly hard to resist society like that.
Ok, so the implications of this experiment are obviously huge, and go a long way in explaining how an entire country could go on a genocide campaign. It also explains how a world such as Gilead could stay in power, with half its people oppressed. The "authority figure" in Gilead is represented by the government, which although it isn't seen outright often, as we mentioned in class this can be much more oppressing than an overt government like in the movie. The government is perceived to have infiltrated everyday life with their "eyes", and so it is difficult to even talk about resistance. Disobedience has obvious consequences, as shown by the hangings of "criminals": "They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive"(33). The level of authority held by the government rivals that of Nazi Germany, and so I would argue that the men in the book are no less responsible for the catastrophe than the women, and that a lack of action by any one of them does not necessarily constitute a weak character, but just a lack of an exceptionally strong one.
This goes for Offred too. Her lack of resistance in the first half of the book does not in any way make her weak, and her actions in the second half, such as playing scrabble and having sex with Nick, I believe are much more indicative of a strong character than we first assume.
As was also mentioned in class, Atwood has discussed how the roots of Gilead come from other societies that have, or currently do exist. The situations in some middle-eastern countries have very similar parallels in their oppression of women, and show that it is not that out of the question for it to occur. I believe distopian books are very important not just for the sake of whatever message they present, like the gender equality statements of "Handmaid's Tale", but so that we can be reminded of our susceptibility to authority, and avoid a distopia of our own.