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The Root of All Evil: Money? How About Obedience?

Stephen Gowans

if you've ever taken a course in psychology you will have almost certainly come across a piece of research by Stanley Milgram. Forty years ago, Milgram, a research psychologist interested in obedience, managed to induce ordinary people to deliver what they believed were lethal shocks to a bogus victim (actually a confederate of Milgram's.) How did he get people to do as he told them? Easy. He donned his lab coat, assumed an air of authority, and told the ordinary people he had recruited for his experiment to crank up the shock machine. The mock victim howled in agony, pleaded for the experiment to stop, but Milgram imperiously commanded his subjects to administer the shocks anyway. And they did.

In short, ordinary people did what they usually do indeed, have been socialized to do: obey authority.

You might think that Milgram had recruited a bunch of wild-eyed, crazed Sadists, Manson-lights, who had spent the moments between fingering the shock button thinking that a trip to Professor Milgram's lab was better than a ride on the Whirligig at the local amusement park.

On the contrary. Milgram's experimental subjects were all ordinary people, many of them very troubled by what they were asked to do, and what they felt compelled to do. But troubled or not, many of them did what they were told.

Of course, the discovery that people will obligingly obey authority doesn't merit a Eureka!, but what Milgram showed was that many people will obey authority, even if the consequences are monstrous. That's startling -- and uncomfortably so.

Not too many years ago I was thrust into a working group of 10 people, each representing one of Canada's ten provinces. Formally, we were all equals. Informally, our nominally level working group became terribly hierarchical, and atop the power pyramid sat one bold person, who dominated our little group. Here was Milgram's experiment all over again. Not as dramatic. But the process was the same.

Bill's transformation into a Milgram-like authority figure began one day when he stood on a desk and commanded all to gather round. His boldness was astonishing, but more astonishing -- and more significant -- was that almost everyone did as he asked! No one had to obey Milgram. His experimental subjects weren't going to be thrown in jail if they didn't. And no one had to obey Bill. He was a coworker, with no formal authority to compel obedience, and no power to fire or reprimand anyone who ignored him.

That marked the beginning of Bill's ascension. Over the weeks that followed, Bill picked out co-workers who had fallen out of favour with our absentee boss, and openly reproved them for being slip-shod in their work. Everyone marveled at his audacity, but only grumbled about it behind his back. No one was going to stand up to Bill's bullying.

Soon Bill was calling meetings, and demanding that everyone attend. Almost all complied.

Bill's meetings were a model of Stalinist control. Bill had drawn two lieutenants into his orbit, with whom the outcome of meetings would be sketched out in advance. Bill at the head of the table, his two lieutenants on either side, would issue an agenda, replete with proposals the power-grubbing triumvirate had cooked up in advance, most of which involved arrogating more power onto their little cabal, and foisting the most hated work on everyone else. Each proposal would be put to a vote. Rarely did any one object -- at least not openly, in the presence of Bill or his trusted Janisaries. Bill was a juggernaut, and few were willing to stand in his way. Bill had to be obeyed.

That some people will bully their way to power isn't surprising, but what is surprising is how easily it can be done by the Bills of the world who are bold enough to energetically demand obedience, and moreover, expect it as their due. Many people just seem to automatically fall into the role of subordinate as one they're most comfortable with, all too willing to take their obedient place in the pecking order, kow-towing to self-proclaimed authority figures as if they were Pavlov's dogs, bending their knees reflexively whenever those bold enough ring the bell of authority.

But there can be no leaders without followers, no power for the few unless given by the many, and the many giving power to the few happens all the time. That's what was so astonishing about Bill and his followers, and about Milgram and his experimental subjects. Bill nor Milgram seized power -- they were given it. Milgram's experimental subjects could have refused to obey. Bill's nominal equals could have ignored Bill. But they didn't.

My coworkers grumbled incessantly about Bill, about how he had maneuvered them into doing the worst jobs, about how he placed them in difficult positions, about how they disagreed with the proposals they had consented to in actions and words, but they granted him his authority everyday by complying with whatever ukases he issued and agreeing to whatever proposals he made. Like Milgram's experimental subjects, they didn't like what they were being asked to do, but they did it anyway.

Like many thoughtful people who lived through the Second World War, Milgram was troubled by the atrocities carried out, not only by Nazi's, but by ordinary Germans, many of whom weren't members of the Nazi Party, but participated in the systematic extermination of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, communists and socialists.

"Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances," wrote Milgram. "These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders."

What makes Milgram's experiment so important is that he suggested that the basis for one of the most horrific episodes in human history, was actually quite prosaic ­ people keeping their noses clean, doing what they were told to do, obeying the rules, not creating waves. The kinds of things that get you put on a pedestal by conservative politicians who are always celebrating the silent majority of people who work hard, obey the rules, and try to get along. Solid, God-fearing, law-abiding citizens.

Some solid, God-fearing, law-abiding citizens also ended up at the Nuremberg trials, bewildered that they were on trial. After all, they explained, "We were just obeying the law." And they were.

Like Milgram, I too was troubled by the Holocaust. If Germans could obey the orders that led to genocide surely others could too ­ the French, the British, Americans...even Canadians.

Especially Canadians. Aren't we known for our deference to authority? Aren't we fond of drawing invidious comparisons between the opening of the Canadian west ­peaceful, orderly ­ and the wild, lawlessness of the American frontier? Didn't Canadians submit to the authority of the British Crown at a time our American cousins were convulsed in revolution? Don't newspaper columnists occasionally sound the alarm that Canadians are becoming less deferential to the symbols of authority the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Church, God, the police -- as if this reflected the erosion of core Canadian values.

For years I chalked up the participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust to seduction ­ the seduction of Aryan supremacy, the seduction of Hitler's charisma, the seduction of overturning the humiliation Germany felt at Versailles. I told myself that there were acts that one knew intuitively to be wrong, but which could be made to seem right by people of unparalleled forensic skills ­ by the brilliant orator, the alluring, inspiring leader, by those who, in today's parlance, had an unerring sense of which hot-buttons to push. In other words, by a Hitler. And one had to be forever on guard against the moral sophistry of other Hitlers.

But there was something else too, something that slowly dawned on me as I raised my kids. People are raised to do the bidding of those in authority, unquestioningly. Is charisma really all that necessary to get good people to commit unspeakable acts? Couldn't genocide happen simply because ordinary people do what they almost always do ­ follow the rules? And couldn't a heinous leader use that to his or her advantage?

As I saw how other parents raised their kids, thought about how I had been reared, and dealt with the challenges of raising my own, it occurred to me that the basis for the mass participation in the carrying out of unconscionable acts lay in what is widely considered a virtue to be encouraged, strengthened, and admired ­ obedience, while disobedience, rebelliousness, the questioning of authority, is discouraged, ground out, and scorned. Yet, as the American historian, Howard Zinn points out, "[h]istorically, the most terrible things ­ war, genocide, and slavery ­ have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience."

Parents, it will be acknowledged, expect their commands to be obeyed, willingly, promptly, and cheerfully, if possible. They council their children to obey authority figures ­ coaches, teachers, school principals, baby-sitters, God. And kids need to obey because there are so many hazards to negotiate that children's limited experience could not possibly prepare them for.

But as children grow older and are able to apply their awakening reason and analytical skills, the steely grip of command can be gradually relaxed, and children relish being given latitude to start making their own decisions.

But the fetters of rules and regulation ­ praised to the heavens by many ­are rarely lifted entirely; sometimes not at all. How many times do children, approaching the world of rules and commands with fresh eyes, ask the age old and quite legitimate question, "Why?" only to be reproved and punished for not blindly submitting?

At my daughter's school -- and I expect this is true at most schools -- there's a rule prohibiting the wearing of hats indoors. One day I had to pick my daughter up during the school day at her classroom. As we walked through the hallway toward the main entrance, I placed my daughter's sun hat on her head, knowing the blistering noonday sun awaited us outside. She quickly tore it off. Bewildered, I asked her what was the matter. "You're not supposed to wear your hat indoors," she said. (That year my daughter was shooting for an A in comportment. I had almost unwittingly sabotaged her efforts.)

Intrigued, I asked her why not.

"I dunno," she replied. "It's just the rules."

Later that day, over supper, I suggested that an inquiry be made as to why students aren't allowed to wear hats in school. Anyone who's had the usual upbringing will know that asking authority figures to explain their rules is a delicate matter, one fraught with a multitude of perils. "Insolence" is a word reserved for kids who don't ask the question in just the right way. "Because" is often the answer.

"Because" wasn't the answer this time, and the question must have been asked in a suitably deferential manner because my daughter did clinch an A in comportment after all, to her delight, and my vague uneasiness. But the answer, though vacuous, was interesting. "You're not to wear hats in school because it shows disrespect," were the teacher's words, conveyed to us the next night at the supper table. Of course, the answer was no answer at all. Exactly who does the wearing of hats show disrespect to, and why? People wear hats outdoors, without showing disrespect. What is it about being surrounded by four walls and a ceiling that suddenly turns the act into a disrespectful one?

Of course, there is no reason, no rationale, no legitimate answer to the question. The rule is arbitrary. It's a convention that had arisen long ago, its rationale lost to some foggy corner of history, but observed out of inertia. "Well, that's the way I was trained as a kid, and by gum, if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for my kids."Or as my father-in-law says: "I'm a traditionalist, you know. And I think time-honored traditions should be honored."

Or, as various other members of my extended family have said, at one time or the other:

"Rules are made to be obeyed."

"The rule wouldn't exist if there wasn't a good reason for it."

Some rules, some conventions, though arbitrary, do have good reasons. Driving on the right side of the road is an arbitrary convention, but a useful one. If we didn't follow that convention, you wouldn't be able to safely drive an automobile. But taking your hat off in doors? Try as you might, you'll not find anything useful in that.

Well, nothing on the surface that passes for being useful. But what if the purpose of promulgating stupid, vacuous rules, and expecting kids to follow them to the tee, has some intelligent design to it, not in the sense of people sitting down and saying, "If we develop this rule, it will have such and such an effect," but in the sense that evolution reflects intelligent design, one that happens randomly, though the process of natural selection? In other words, there might be certain rules that get propagated from one generation to the next, not because anyone knows what function they serve, but because they are useful rules to have in the kind of society in which we live, and hence, get repeated, over and over again.

In a hierarchical society, as ours, which couldn't exist in its present form unless people were willing to obey, what better way to grind in reflexive subordination to authority than to promulgate stupid, arbitrary rules, and expect kids to follow them, on pain of sanction? That's the true test of obedience.

If a rule makes sense, and has a clear and useful purpose, compliance with the rule may only reflect the rule-follower recognizing the rule to be based on good-sense, one that would be followed anyway, whether promulgated or not. That's not obedience. That's people doing what appears to make sense. It calls to mind what the anarchists say: Rules are unnecessary. Good people don't need them, and bad people don't follow them.

If you want to foster obedience it isn't good enough to ask people to follow rules they'll follow anyway. The true test of obedience is whether people follow meaningless rules they wouldn't otherwise follow. For if they'll follow empty rules they'd otherwise reject, mightn't they follow heinous rules they'd otherwise reject too, like delivering shocks to hapless victims, or turning Jews into the Nazi authorities? That's what obedience is. Doing what you're told, whether it makes sense or not, and, if it comes to it, no matter what the human consequences.

If the authorities say you must participate in the persecution of a minority, do you obey? If the authorities say you must round up every man, woman and child in a village, push them into a ditch and then machine gun them down, do you comply? Or what if they say you must fly a bombing sortie against a pedestrian bridge on which dozens of civilians are walking, or drop an atomic bomb on a city that will immediately incinerate 70,000 civilians? Most people would like to think that they wouldn't, but when put to the test most people do. Milgram's experiment found it's almost inevitable. And is it any surprise when from birth, almost everyone is taught that discipline and subordination is good -- even when it makes no sense -- while the questioning of authority is punished, ground out, crushed?

Early on I made sure my children were introduced to the uber-rule, the one rule to which all others are subordinate: Comply with no rule that is inhumane or cruel, and follow no rule which makes no sense, if complying with the rule would hurt yourself or others.

Of course, my kids still take their hats off in school. But they know enough to seek out the reasoning behind rules, to think about the reasoning critically, and to identify arbitrary rules for what they are. They're learning to critically assess what they're told by authority figures -- including by their parents -- and they've been introduced to the idea that some authority is illegitimate, that some rules are stupid and unworthy of being followed. And they're learning that one of the stupidest, most destructive aphorisms in human history is, "Ours is not to wonder why; ours is but to do and die."

Ours, indeed, is to wonder why.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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