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The Runaway Society and Obedience to Authority

By Subversify Staff Feb 4, 2011

Today, I am taking a slight break from my education series

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Runaway Society and Obedience to Authority

By Edward-Yemil Rosario

Towards the end of Emile Zola’s Beast of Man, an engineer and a fireman are quarreling in the locomotive of a passenger train. In his rage, the fireman has stoked the engine’s fire into an inferno. They grab at each other’s throats, each trying to force the other through the open door. Losing their balance, both fall out and perish. The train rumbles on at breakneck speed. The passengers, soldiers en route to the war front, are sleeping or drunkenly unaware of the impending disaster.

Zola’s story has been seen as a parable of modern runaway societies. Those supposedly in charge, embroiled in their own personal dramas, paralyzed with performance anxiety, or caught up in their ambitions, have left the driver’s seat. Meanwhile we, their oblivious passengers, are about to pay the price.

I sometimes work as a motivational speaker. Most of this work involves other professionals, but oftentimes, I’m asked to address young people. The first time was when a colleague once asked me to substitute for her at an elementary school. The topic was substance abuse and she had a plan all worked out.

Of course, I discarded her curriculum and proceeded to do it my way.

I’ve always been interested in group behavior and the following is how I “teach” about peer pressure.

Please do not try this at home, you’re not trained, and you can do more harm than good if you practice without a license.

Normally, I wait until students file into the class, and those that are “late” (as defined by me) are asked to wait right outside the door. Before all this, I have taken the liberty of drawing three lines on the blackboard. One line is obviously shorter than the rest. It’s not blatantly shorter, but short enough to notice upon inspection.

Before I allow the “late” students in, I address the class and tell them that they will be my co-conspirators in an experiment on social behavior. I point to the lines and ask, “Which of these lines is the shortest?” Of course, a few students raise their hands and correctly identify the shorter line. Once a consensus has been reached, I tell the students that I am now going to allow the “late” students in and ask them the same question. However, I instruct the class to agree that the shortest line is not the shortest line, that it is, in fact, the same size as the other lines.

At this point, I allow the “late” students in and proceed to ask them the same question. Again, the late students are all in agreement as to which is the shortest line. Then I ask my co-conspirators and one by one, they all say that none of the lines is shortest, that they all are, in fact, the same size.

I ask the late students once again, “Are you sure this line is the shortest?” What often happens is that one by one, the late students experience pressure to fall in line with the consensus of the majority. Some will stick to their guns, but most will fall under the pressure of the power of the group. At this point, I disclose our little conspiracy and then turn to the class and say, “This is what peer pressure feels like.”

The rest of the workshop is dedicated to exploring those feelings, and how that pressure can be used as a way to do almost anything against our will — drugs, sex, violence, voting for idiots, using immigrants or those we perceive as different as scapegoats, etc.

It’s a powerful way to illustrate the power of the group. If you ask, most people will tell you that they would never succumb to the group. However, studies show that the vast majority of you will obey authority. Even to the point of murder.

Obedience to Authority

I work with currently and formerly or currently incarcerated men and women. I came about this work more through flow than an actual conscious decision. In fact, I was initially reluctant to work with this population because 1) It’s an extremely challenging group to work with, and 2) even those motivated to change face huge systemic obstacles to successful social reintegration. Nowhere is this issue of obedience to authority more clearly illustrated than in prison settings. One experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment (click here), led by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, had to be abandoned within a couple of days because, normal college students role playing corrections officers were abusing the students role playing the inmates, and the students role-playing the inmates were plotting a prison breakout. It’s a totally engrossing study.

However, the study which I have found the most interesting is one you may have heard about. Anyone who has taken any psych 101 course will have heard of Stanley Milgram, who shocked the world in the early 1960s with his discoveries at Yale while conducting what became known as The Obedience Experiments (click here). In brief, he found that average, presumably normal, groups of residents of New Haven, Connecticut, would readily inflict very painful, and probably deadly, electric shocks on an innocent victim whose actions did not merit such harsh treatment.

The experiment, supposedly dealing with the effects of punishment on learning, required that the subjects shock a learner every time he made an error on a verbal learning task, and to increase the intensity of the shock in 15-volt steps, from 15 to 450 volts, on each subsequent error. The results: 65% of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end, simply because they were commanded to.

Groundbreaking and controversial, these experiments have had enduring relevance, because they demonstrated with stunning clarity that ordinary individuals could be induced by an authority figure to act destructively, even in the absence of physical force, and that it didn’t take evil or aberrant individuals to carry out mass actions that were immoral and inhumane.

Milgram’s findings have had the effect of making us more aware of our vulnerability to manipulation in the face of social pressure, in the process making us reshape our individual morality. While I’m sure most of you reading this would like to think that when confronted with a moral dilemma we would act in line with our conscience, Milgram’s experiments taught us — with shocking, irrefutable detail — that, in a concrete situation containing powerful social pressures, our moral sense can get trampled underfoot.

And this is how evil happens; we allow it to happen through acquiescence, obedience, and not wanting to “rock the boat.” This how that Iraqi child today is killed through no fault of his own, it’s how some of us defend a law that targets people based on skin color; how the twin Black and Jewish holocausts come to be…

Right wing authoritarianism thrives on obedience. For the last 40 years, a vast media network has embedded an obedience to authority mindset on unsuspecting and/ or apathetic Americans that would’ve made Goebbels green with envy. Shit, people in France, Egypt, and Greece who are taking to the streets to fight for their equal share must be wondering, “Have the Americans fallen asleep?” Sadly, we have, and the train is hurtling towards sure disaster…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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2 thoughts on “The Runaway Society and Obedience to Authority”
  1. Thank you, Eddie, for this somber reminder of how easily people can be pushed into a mad rush of destructive impulses without consciously analyzing their actions. I’ve been swept into the path of protests and demonstrations. The air was exhilarating and filled with action. But when the riots start, there’s no stopping this mob force. We must choose our moral ground, but it must be high enough that when the fire starts, we are not consumed by the flames.

  2. As I started reading I was wracking my brain for the name Milgrsm. Thanks for supplying it. I think every highschool freshman should learn about Milgrsm and be reminded of it periodically. I always say to myself “Oh I wouldn’t”. Not me. Given the right incentive we all would. The right pressure.

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