WHEN OBEDIENCE GOES WRONG
Would you do wrong if an authority figure told you to? If you think not, read on.
Ideas of authority and obedience are thought unfashionable today and virtue is made out of a willingness to question everything. The military and the Church may be two of the residual places where this kind of strict discipline is spoken of: the armed forces are predicated on command and control, for lives are at stake; Christians speak freely of the obedience they owe Christ as Lord. For others, such talk may even be provocative, as if personal freedom is at stake. Our generation prides itself on its insubordination, as if anyone calling for obedience has a vested desire to subjugate and control. The consumer society is questioning and discerning, unwilling to believe what it is being told because there is usually an ulterior motive. At least we like to think this of ourselves. The truth may be radically different.
We find it hard to get into the minds of those who either perpetrate or permit crimes of genocide in our world because we cannot imagine being sucked into a vortex of unspeakable brutality. A closet form of racism endures, where we deem such crimes believable of other nations but never ours, because there is an inherent decency and independence of spirit among our own. The nature of universal human sin should bring us up short, for there is no assurance we would not succumb. In fact there is a disturbing tendency for people to submit unthinkingly to those who would manipulate them.
Carefully controlled psychological experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s showed that individuals obey authorities even when a task is morally repugnant and there is neither reward for doing it nor punishment for not doing it. The willingness of people to administer higher and higher dosages of electricity to the bodies of others just because they were told to is an experiment that has been replicated in other cultures and decades – each with largely the same outcome.
The film Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2013) is one of the most unsettling and diminishing dramas one could possibly see, haunting the viewer in ways the prosaic violence of the modern film rarely achieves with desensitised watchers. It is based on the true story of a US sociopath, who perpetrated a series of hoax calls to places of work. In the film, the caller claims to be a police officer investigating the employee of a fast food chain who is falsely claimed to have stolen money from a customer. Over the course of an hour, the caller uses a diabolical mixture of stern authority and whimsical appeal to coerce staff to humiliate and assault a hapless young woman called Becky. Disbelieving audiences are made to feel complicit in the degradation of the woman, as if they are the renowned bystander who cravenly observes the crimes of others.
The drama also critiques the banal and superficial culture of the fast food outlet, where harassed and underpaid staff follow instructions unquestioningly, in case they land themselves in trouble with their superiors. Viewers cannot believe what they are witnessing, finding it hard to place themselves in the position of the store boss who does all that is being asked of her, even though this violates both human rights and common decency.
Can we learn anything from this? Mostly we are not exposed to this kind of testing and instinctive moral decision making. When we are, like the other staff in the film, we may prefer to opt out of personal duty, using the authority figure above us as an excuse. To the observer of the film, critical boundary lines are crossed – like the strip search – yet to the participants, there is a subtle incremental feel to the demands which they dreamily submit to. Two people refuse to do what they are told by the hoaxer, because something in their conscience prohibits them, yet rather than challenging the others to the same scrutiny, they merely pass responsibility on to the next person.
Perhaps we should think more searchingly about authority. Today we see this in consumerist terms, asserting our own rights implacably where as citizens we might first think about the entitlements of others. However, the human heart remains complex and evasive; we do not always treat others as we would like them to treat us and we would seem to be alarmingly and indiscriminatingly susceptible to the commands of others.
Those who would marginalise faith in the public world often use the argument that it inhibits grown up ethical decision making, as if the believer surrenders their morality uncritically to a mythical being. The truth should be manifestly different. Only God exerts untainted authority; ours is so ravaged by sin that we should use the independent conscience he has given us to subject any human order to the great commandment: am I showing love to my neighbour in doing what I am being told to do? We should never, finally, surrender this duty to anyone who would despoil it.
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